Chicago workers could — for now — take a COVID-19 test instead of the vaccine, as unions push back on Lightfoot’s mandate

Woman walks by COVID-19 testing site
A pedestrian wears a face mask as she walks past an information sign of COVID-19 testing in Chicago in August. Chicago's Oct. 15 mandate for city workers to get a vaccine shot for now includes the option to get tested instead. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press
Woman walks by COVID-19 testing site
A pedestrian wears a face mask as she walks past an information sign of COVID-19 testing in Chicago in August. Chicago's Oct. 15 mandate for city workers to get a vaccine shot for now includes the option to get tested instead. Nam Y. Huh / Associated Press

Chicago workers could — for now — take a COVID-19 test instead of the vaccine, as unions push back on Lightfoot’s mandate

Chicago city employees who are not fully vaccinated by an Oct. 15 deadline will be allowed to stay on the job if they undergo regular testing, though it’s unclear how long that option will last, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot would not provide further details Friday.

Officials continue to reiterate the city is still in talks with union leaders who have opposed “punitive mandates,” and will not specify whether the testing option will be a permanent piece of the vaccine policy. On Thursday, Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the city will have “more to share on how long that option may last” as negotiations continue.

At an unrelated news conference Friday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot insisted that the Oct. 15 deadline for vaccines would still stand, and there would be “consequences” for those who do not comply, but the mayor would not give more details. The mayor did not directly answer repeated questions about the potential testing option.

“We are still in the midst of discussion with our colleagues in organized labor, so the final ink on a deal has not been drafted,” Lightfoot said. “But primarily we cannot maximize the safety of our workplaces without people being fully vaccinated.”

Lightfoot did not confirm whether a testing option even exists, despite the announcement from Dr. Arwady. And, as first reported by Block Club Chicago, her administration sent an email to employees dated Sept. 24 stating those who do not get vaccinated by Oct. 15 “will need to undergo regular COVID-19 testing.” An email dated Sept. 30 to employees did not mention the testing option, which one Chicago alderman believes has caused some confusion among employees.

The testing option comes as negotiations with unions have perhaps taken longer than anticipated, and as the clock runs out for employees to be in compliance with the city’s declared mandate. Friday is the last day for employees to get a shot and be fully vaccinated by the deadline.

While the mayor has doubled down on the mandate on numerous occasions since announcing it with few details in August, she has said previously she does not want it to be punitive. The opposition from union leaders is primarily focused on any disciplinary measures that could be tied to the mandate.

““[A]ny discussion around a vaccine policy should include not only medical and religious exemptions, but also testing alternatives as we continue to build trust around the benefits of voluntary vaccination,” Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter said in a statement after the mayor’s initial announcement.

On Friday, the CFL released another statement saying it has not yet reached an agreement with the city on the mandate, and urged city leaders to be clear in its communication to employees, seemingly referring to communications about a potential testing option

“If the city plans to share details with its workforce of a yet-to-be-announced policy, we encourage them to be consistent in their communications so as not to confuse, frustrate or provide additional anxiety to a workforce that has been sacrificing their health and safety for the past 18 months.”

The CFL represents around 300 unions and labor organizations in Chicago and Cook County.

Separately, the mayor has struggled to negotiate with the Fraternal Order of Police, the largest union representing Chicago police officers, which by far make up the largest share of the city’s workforce. FOP president John Catanzara has been loudly opposed to the mandate, and has made inflammatory remarks comparing it to Nazi Germany. The mayor last week accused the FOP of refusing to negotiate.

On Friday, Catanzara told members the union met with the city earlier in the day, and that there “will likely be a testing option available for a period of time, after implementation of the policy, through the end of the year at least,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

“As of today, any compliance with the self-reporting vaccination portal is strictly VOLUNTARY,” Catanzara told members. “The City is pushing the implementation of reporting vaccine status by the arbitrary Oct. 15th deadline set by the Mayor.”

Chicago Ald. Brian Hopkins, who has pushed for vaccine mandates for city employees and wants to see mandates for public spaces like bars and restaurants, criticized city leaders Thursday for even introducing the testing option, and urged them not to make it permanent.

“It’s a step backwards when we need to be pushing forwards,” Hopkins said.

But he added he understands the temporary compromise may benefit negotiations.

“There’s hearts and minds that have not yet been won over. If they need time to accept the reality, that’s part of the negotiations,” he said. “And after we’ve made our best argument and we still have not won over 100% of the nation, mandates need to kick in and take the choice away.”

Many health experts agree “regular” testing is a less effective way to prevent outbreaks in the workplace than a vaccine mandate, said Dr. Zachary Rubin, an allergist and member of the COVID-19 policy group IMPACT.

“Nobody really knows what ‘regularly’ means, right? That’s one of the pitfalls — is that we don’t really know the optimal timing to figure out how often we need to test, and you’re going to have breakthroughs,” Rubin said.

“And If the city is looking at cost regarding a vaccine versus testing, the testing is going to be way more expensive if you have to do that weekly for people who are refusing to get vaccinated.”

But Rubin acknowledged Chicago leaders are in a difficult position as they balance public safety with lingering vaccine hesitancy among employees.

“It’s a difficult risk benefit analysis to perform,” he said. “It’s easy for us to just say, ‘Well, everybody has to get a vaccine and be done with it,’ and to face the consequences of losing your job … And I do empathize with that. But we are still in the midst of the worst pandemic of our lifetime.”

Chicago is not the only major U.S. city struggling with implementation of its vaccine mandate, and leaders are perhaps looking to avoid hurdles seen elsewhere.

The Los Angeles City Council in August approved a punitive mandate for city employees without a testing option. Since then, police officers have sued the city, thousands have said they’ll seek a religious exemption, and large numbers of school employees are resisting the shot, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The state of Illinois imposed a Sept. 19 deadline on its vaccine mandate for some state employees, but pushed that back to Oct. 14 and is now requiring regular testing as negotiations with unions continue. The state recently reached a vaccine mandate agreement with one union that does not allow for a testing option, with the goal of reaching similar agreements with unions representing some state employees.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the state of Illinois’ vaccination policies for its employees.

Mariah Woelfel covers city government at WBEZ. You can follow her on Twitter @MariahWoelfel.