Philadelphia firefighters union sues city over COVID-19 vaccine mandate

The firefighters union says up to 30% of its members could be suspended under the mandate.
PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- The union representing Philadelphia firefighters sued the city on Monday over the newly implemented COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Local 22 IAFF represents the city's 2,600 firefighters and paramedics.

The union says the mandate would lead to the suspension of 30% of its members, exacerbating a staffing shortage and therefore risk public safety.

"We're one of the busiest fire departments in the country and we're short-handed already, especially paramedics and EMS personnel," said Mike Bresnan, president of IAFF Local 22. "With the violent crime epidemic in the city, why would you get rid of people we need dearly?"

In response, city spokesperson Kevin Lessard said, "The City has notified Local 22 that it remains ready to negotiate the impact of this policy and promptly proceed to interest arbitration to resolve any disputes, as it has been trying to do since November. Despite needlessly delaying the arbitration process for months, Local 22 finally agreed to name an arbitrator last week and the City is pushing to schedule a hearing as quickly as possible."

Numbers show that as of February 1 the fire department had the lowest vaccination rate among city departments, with an estimated 61% to 70% of firefighters and paramedics vaccinated.

Philadelphia's vaccine mandate went into effect Friday, Feb. 11, requiring city workers to provide proof of having at least the first dose of the vaccine or submit a valid exemption.



On March 1, unvaccinated employees and those without exemptions will be placed on leave and possibly fired when that time runs out.

The mandate was delayed several times since it was announced in November as the city negotiated with several unions.

The union argues masking up and weekly testing should be sufficient. It also alleges the city didn't follow proper protocols and is engaging in unfair labor practices, violating their agreement that states any vaccine mandate dispute must be handled by an arbitration panel.

"We want to make it clear we aren't against vaccines," said Bresnan. "We're against a mandate and in the collective bargaining process. There has to be a process and they're just going right around the process."

Mayor Jim Kenney's administration previously reached an agreement for a vaccine timeline with unions representing the more than 6,800 employees within the police department.

The administration stressed that the mandate could help ensure there is sufficient staffing to serve the city.

Full city statement in response to the suit:

Since it was announced in November, the City has worked diligently with Local 22 to move forward with implementing the vaccination mandate using an arbitration process agreed upon by Local 22, a process by which the City has successfully negotiated agreements with our other labor partners. The City simply cannot afford to delay any further the implementation of a requirement that will keep both our employees and the public they serve safe. As such, the City announced earlier this month that it would move forward with implementing the vaccination mandate for all represented employees, including members of Local 22. The City has notified Local 22 that it remains ready to negotiate the impact of this policy and promptly proceed to interest arbitration to resolve any disputes, as it has been trying to do since November. Despite needlessly delaying the arbitration process for months, Local 22 finally agreed to name an arbitrator last week and the City is pushing to schedule a hearing as quickly as possible.

It is also simply untrue to say the City is massively short on firefighters and lives are at risk. The City budgets for 3,348 personnel, and those positions are filled through our current deployment firefighters, and those working overtime shifts. Mayor Kenney has made unprecedented investments in the Philadelphia Fire Department, reversing massive cuts made by previous Administrations. Funding for the Fire Department has gone from actual expenditures of $236 million in FY17 to $361 million in the FY22 budget, an increase of over 50 percent. We wish Mr. Bresnan would spend more time urging his membership to get vaccinated and protect themselves and the residents they serve instead of spreading falsehoods and attempting to engender fear.

Regarding union leadership's claim about data provided, to date, the City has provided Local 22 with some of the information they've requested related to the self-reported vaccination status of their members; we are still working on the voluminous request.
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