Judge bars police union chief from telling Chicago cops not to comply with city vaccine mandate

Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, shown in this February 2021 file photo, says the city government should “lead by example” when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Mayor Lori Lightfoot
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, shown in this February 2021 file photo, says the city government should “lead by example” when it comes to COVID-19 vaccinations. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Judge bars police union chief from telling Chicago cops not to comply with city vaccine mandate

The city of Chicago’s new vaccine mandate took effect Friday, requiring thousands of public employees in the country’s third-largest city to either provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or undergo twice-weekly testing, prompting a legal showdown between the mayor and the city’s largest police union.

City workers who failed to report their vaccine status to an online portal by 11:59 p.m. Friday could be placed on “non-disciplinary, no-pay status.” City attorneys said in a hearing Friday that no officers would be punished over the weekend for not sharing their vaccination information.

In the latest development, a Cook County judge late Friday afternoon barred the head of Chicago’s largest police union from making any more public statements telling officers not to comply with the city’s vaccination policy.

John Catanzara, the head of the Chicago lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, has repeatedly urged rank-and-file officers to refuse to share their vaccination status, calling it private information the city “shouldn’t be entitled to.” Catanzara has predicted at least 50% of the city’s police force won’t comply. That means they would be ineligible to work. He promised the union would sue on behalf of any officers who lose money because of it.

But on Thursday, city attorneys filed their own motion for injunctive relief, asking a judge to prohibit the union from making a “concerted effort” to defy the policy. The legal filing argued that the union’s actions constituted an illegal strike, something the union denied.

The city also argued in its motion that the union’s actions would put Chicago officials between a rock and a hard place: either exempt police from what they call a “reasonable and necessary directive” or be left without a police force big enough to deal with Chicago’s “pandemic of violent crime.”

Also on Thursday, the FOP was joined by the unions for police supervisors in filing their own motion, asking a judge to force the city to suspend the requirement, saying officials were obliged to negotiate with the unions before implementing a new work requirement. The filing claims the requirement violates the terms of the city’s contracts with its police unions.

In a video directed toward officers posted Friday, Catanzara said he wanted to be “very clear, this union never called for a strike.”

“We told our officers to continue to go to work, it was the city that was threatening to lock out our officers for not complying with an improper directive,” Catanzara said.

This legal back and forth comes as the city has been campaigning for months to get workers vaccinated. On Thursday, the day before the policy was set to take effect, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and department heads stressed the importance of having a city workforce that’s fully inoculated, while clarifying that people who are not compliant will not be sent home Friday or even this weekend.

“No employee should abandon their post,” Lightfoot said Thursday,” adding that it will take the city time to make sure it has correct information and the opportunity to reach out to workers who do not appear to be in compliance.

“But once we understand that people have not complied with the simple request — say yes or no, or that I’m going to take the testing option — then, yes, we will be moving forward, putting people [on] notice,” the mayor said, adding that it’s a process that could take days, not weeks.

The mayor declined to answer questions about how many employees have been vaccinated or how many have uploaded their status to the online portal. The city says it plans to share those numbers next week.

Workers who are not vaccinated will be required to pay for their own testing, which could cost hundreds of dollars.

COVID-19 vaccination
A pharmacist at Armitage Pharmacy in Chicago gives a COVID-19 vaccination in February 2020. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

From the start, Lightfoot has stressed this is about protecting city workers, especially those who deal directly with the public, and setting an example for Chicago residents. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 6,000 Chicagoans have died from COVID-19.

“I’ve been very clear, the only way we can maximize safety in our workplace is to get people vaccinated,” she said on Wednesday in defense of the new policy. “I believe that as a city government we have to lead by example.”

But the rollout of the mandate has been mired by rumors that thousands of city workers will be forced off the job immediately for non-compliance. Catanzara has been using his YouTube channel to encourage officers not to comply.

“[This is] the city’s clear attempt to force officers to ‘Chicken Little, the sky is falling’ into compliance. Do not fall for it. Hold the line,” Catanzara urged members earlier this week.

“And just so you all know, in solidarity, starting at midnight, I will myself go into a no-pay status as your president, because I think it’s the right thing to do,” Catanzara said, making clear that he’s stopping short of calling for an “illegal strike.”

Public safety unions are prohibited from going on strike in Chicago, a law that was put in place in 1980 after firefighters walked off the job during a stalemate with the Jane Byrne Administration.

Lightfoot said at stake in the battle over the vaccine policy is “the legitimacy of local policing” in Chicago.

“This notion that individual officers get to be insubordinate … We’re not having that. And if that’s the police department they want to be in, they should walk to another police department,” Lightfoot said at a press conference Friday.

“It’s an honor to be a Chicago police officer … And anyone who says ‘we get to do what we want when we want it, we get to have the kind of policing that we want when we want it,’ that has happened in our city for far too long. And that’s why our residents don’t trust the police.”

Catanzara’s warnings have caught the attention of two aldermen who represent wards where a lot of police officers live.

In a letter addressed to the mayor, Ald. Matt O’Shea, 19th Ward, of Beverly, and Ald. Marty Quinn, 13th Ward, of Garfield Ridge, requested a delay in the vaccine policy. The aldermen, both of whom are vaccinated, cited “public safety” concerns their neighborhoods could face if hundreds of cops are told to go home for failure to comply with the new rules.

“Our main concern now is about losing police officers as we face a dwindling police force and rising incidents of crime and violence,” they wrote. “We want to be clear that this isn’t about mandates. For us, this is about public safety.”

Brian McDermott, chief of operations for CPD, said Thursday the force “will be fully staffed and ready to protect the citizens of the city. It is our full expectation that all Chicago Police Department members will comply with the city’s new policy.”

At one point Thursday, Lightfoot was asked if the city would have to call in the National Guard if there ends up being a shortage of police officers.

“I don’t want to go into hypothetical scenarios that have not presented themselves,” she said.

Lightfoot again emphasized the policy is meant to secure the safety of city workers — especially public safety employees who don’t have the luxury of working from home. These are the same workers, Lightfoot said, who were most likely to contract COVID-19, especially in the early months of the pandemic pre-vaccines.

As of Sept. 21, 3,451 sworn members and 91 civilian members of the Chicago Police Department have contracted COVID-19, according to a police department spokesperson. Four have died.

“Our workers are either in communities directly interacting with our residents or helping residents and working alongside their co-workers in city offices and facilities,” Lightfoot said. “This means that the health of our city workers directly impacts the health of everyone that they interact with.”

For vaccinated city workers, the rules are simple: they upload their vaccine card to a city-hosted online portal before midnight Friday.

Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said all the medical information the city is requesting is Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) compliant, and she dispelled rumors, mainly from Catanzara, that the city is trying to get full medical histories of workers.

“I’ve been hearing a lot of rumors that you have to put in details of your medical history, I’ve been hearing people say you have to download DNA samples, I’ve been hearing people say you have to go and give blood,” Arwady said, adding that none of this is true.

For the unvaccinated, the policy requires bi-weekly COVID testing, which will have to be done off the clock and at their own expense. That option expires Dec. 31, which is when all city employees will have to be vaccinated, provided they don’t have a religious or medical exemption. But city leaders have not outlined the consequences.

By comparison, unvaccinated employees at Chicago Public Schools will have the option to get tested at their local school and the district will cover the cost. About 86% of CPS employees are vaccinated, with another 10% that haven’t submitted their information yet, according to CPS. Some 4% have medical or religious exemptions. Employees of other sister agencies — like the Park District, Chicago Transit Authority, and City Colleges — are not required to comply with the new policy.

The policy does not limit the type of test employees can take to satisfy this requirement. Home tests are allowed, but with specific instructions on how the results must be provided.

A majority of the city’s workforce is unionized. And the lack of clarity on what happens to workers who fail to get vaccinated by Dec. 31 is an issue that has union leaders concerned, Bob Reiter, President of the Chicago Federation of Labor, told WBEZ.

The CFL is an umbrella organization that represents more than 300 affiliated unions, including several that have city workers as members.

“We believe in order to provide a safe working environment for all employees, the testing option should continue” beyond Dec. 31, Reiter said Thursday. “Having mandates that are punitive are not helpful for us to resolve issues around the pandemic and to protect worker safety.”

Reiter said he and his members still plan to present alternative proposals to the administration to make sure no workers who choose not to get vaccinated lose their job after Dec. 31.

“I don’t know how the city is going to react when we send it to them,” Reiter said. “Their last communication to us was that they were imposing the policy. And there’s still more ground to cover.”

Claudia Morell is a WBEZ metro reporter. Follow @claudiamorell.

Patrick Smith is a reporter on WBEZ’s Criminal Justice Desk. Follow him @pksmid. Email him at psmith@wbez.org.