Chicago city employees will be required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by October 15, but it may see resistance from the city’s police force and other major unions.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the vaccine mandate Wednesday, joining suburban Cook County and other major cities, such as L.A. The mandate applies to all City employees and volunteers. Employees who don’t want to get vaccinated can apply for medical or religious exemption. Those will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, according to a press release from the mayor’s office.
“We have decided to join other municipalities and government agencies across the nation, including the U.S. military, who are making this decision to protect the people who are keeping our cities and country moving,” Lightfoot said in a written statement. “We have also been in close communication with our partners in the labor movement to create a vaccination policy that is workable, fair and effective.”
However, several major unions in Chicago were either silent or spoke out in opposition after Lightfoot’s announcement Wednesday. Some insisted the policy wasn’t a done-deal, saying they were still in talks on what it would say.
The Chicago Federation of Labor, an umbrella organization for Cook and Chicago employee unions, said the mandate may have the opposite effect officials intend.
“We believe in the benefits of vaccination to help protect workers and residents, but we do not believe punitive mandates are the right path to significantly increase vaccine uptake,” CFL president Bob Reiter said in a statement. “In fact, we believe this announcement may harden opposition to the vaccine instead of protecting the workers who have sacrificed so much over the past 18 months.”
Reiter said the group is still in “very preliminary discussions” with the city, and said the vaccine policy should include “not only medical and religious exemptions, but also testing alternatives” for employees who don’t get the vaccine.
SEIU Local 73, which said it represents about 800 public service employees who would be affected by this mandate, declined to comment, though the spokesperson said there “has been no agreement yet” with the city.
The largest union representing Chicago police has been the loudest opposition to a vaccine mandate after the mayor signaled earlier this week that one was imminent. The Fraternal Order of Police on Tuesday posted a statement saying it and other law enforcement unions were opposed to a mandate. But, the post indicated that the union expected to continue to talk with the city about what that mandate would look like.
“FOP along with the Sgt’s, Lt’s, and Captains associations stood united and firm in their position against any mandate,” their statement, posted Tuesday, read in part. “The city acknowledged that it needs to negotiate this policy and its (effects) with the unions. That’s where it was left for now. We will have further talks once the city provides draft language.”
Then on Wednesday, the FOP’s president teed off on the new mandate, comparing it to Nazi rule in Germany.
It’s unclear based on the city’s press release what steps will be taken if an employee does not provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 15. Similar policies, such as the one in Cook County, do allow employees with religious or health exemptions to opt out of the vaccination requirement, but they must submit to twice-weekly testing. The city’s press release does not specify what opting out would require.
In Chicago, private institutions such as hospitals and universities have been taking the lead on vaccine mandates. Public officials in Illinois have mandated vaccines for some state public employees who work in congregate settings like prisons and mask mandates for state facilities and public schools.
On Wednesday, a spokesman for the largest state employee union, AFSCME, said that while the union has encouraged its members to receive a vaccine, the mandate from Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker is “punitive.”
“Regarding vaccine policy, the union will continue to advocate for flexibility — such as time off to be vaccinated or in case of COVID illness, medical and religious exceptions, or regular testing as an alternative — rather than a rigid, universal and punitive approach,” AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall wrote in a statement.
Currently, 63.7% of Chicago’s vaccine-eligible population has been fully vaccinated.
WBEZ’s Tony Arnold contributed.
Mariah Woelfel covers city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.