CityWatch: Questions of shortage of critical workers as New York’s City’s vaccine deadline looms

More than a year and a half into the global COVID-19 pandemic, New York City has taken the bold step of mandating that all city workers get at least one shot of the vaccine to protect against the virus.

The move affects around 160,500 employees, 79% of whom had already received at least one vaccine dose as of Oct. 28. Those who get the shot before the deadline—5 p.m. on Oct. 29—will get $500, and those who don’t will be put on unpaid leave until they get vaccinated. Uniformed correction officers have an extended deadline of Dec. 1

The citywide mandate also comes on the heels of a separate vaccine requirement a few weeks ago for workers for the city’s health and education departments. But the new mandate has led to concerns that if a significant number of people refuse to get the shot, there may be staffing shortages among critical city workers including firefighters, policemen, sanitation workers, and corrections officers. 

The most recent city data available from Oct. 28 showed vaccination rates for the NYPD at 79%, the FDNY at 69%, the Department of Sanitation at 67%, and the Department of Corrections at 54%.

The vaccine is critical in preventing COVID infections, and makes breakthrough case infections less severe. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio played down the potential for staffing shortages when he announced the mandate, citing the spike in vaccination rates among education and health employees in the lead-up to, and shortly after, their own deadline last month. The vaccination rates for those agencies are now above 95%. 

“We, obviously, have contingencies in place for any gaps that we experience, but our uniformed agency leadership feel very strongly that they will be able to handle any scenario,” de Blasio said on Oct. 20. “We’ll use overtime when we need to use overtime. We’ll do redeployments when we need to do redeployments. We have a variety of ways we can adjust the use of the workforce. We feel confident that even if there’s some temporary dynamic of some people not being ready right away, that we’re going to find our way through it.” 

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FDNY leaders have held virtual meetings with staff encouraging them to comply with the mandate, but the agency is preparing for as many as 20% of fire companies to close on Monday, Nov. 1, and 20% fewer ambulances on the road, an FDNY spokesperson told MarketWatch. The agency did not speculate on what the effect would be on ambulance response times. 

Protesters of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate pass by trash bags on a New York street Oct. 28.

Getty Images

Other changes for city firefighters will include mandatory overtime to fill staffing needs, canceled vacations, uniformed members in offline positions returning to the field, and getting aid from voluntary EMS units run by private hospitals and volunteers.  

“The department must manage the unfortunate fact that a portion of our workforce has refused to comply with a vaccine mandate for all city employees,” Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said in a statement. “We will ensure the continuity of operations and safety of all those we have sworn oaths to serve.”

The NYPD did not answer specific questions from MarketWatch about potential staffing shortages, but said in a statement that the department “will be prepared for any changes in personnel due to the mandate.” 

The Department of Corrections did not respond to MarketWatch’s questions about potential staffing following the vaccine deadline. 

Although the majority of city workers have been vaccinated, the mandate has received pushback from union leaders, and many workers have openly protested. 

It appeared that sanitation workers were already slowing down the week preceding the vaccine mandate deadline, as trash piled up in some neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Staten Island. The mayor said in a news conference on Thursday that he assumed the problem was related to “people expressing their views on this new mandate,” adding that he was in discussions with the sanitation department union.

On Monday, the Police Benevolent Association, a union representing thousands of NYPD officers, filed a lawsuit, which they lost, to halt the mandate. The same day, a large crowd of municipal workers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge, and thousands gathered to protest in front of City Hall. A few days later, a group of firefighters, including Andrew Ansbro, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association of Greater New York, protested in front of Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence. 

Ansbro, along with other union leaders, has argued that the COVID vaccine should be a “personal choice,” and has alluded to possible staffing shortages in his public statements. 

“Hundreds of my members that have told me they will not comply, I’m worried for them. I’m worried about their jobs, but I’m also worried for the New York City residents,” Ansbro said in a news conference. “I have told my members that if they choose to remain unvaccinated, they must still report for duty. And if they are told that they cannot work, it will be the department and the city of New York that sends them home. And it will be the department and the city of New York that has failed to protect the citizens of the city of New York.”

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The Department of Corrections, which has the lowest vaccination rate of any city agency, according to official numbers, has already been experiencing significant staffing shortages. On Rikers Island, the personnel issue is so extreme that it has caused delays in medical treatment. Many detainees haven’t been taken to court, New York news website The City reported last month. 

The Correction Officers Benevolent Association, a union of DOC workers, is against the vaccine mandate.   

“The question becomes, if you fire those or you put those who aren’t getting their first vaccine by Dec. 1 on leave, how are the inmates that are struggling to get services now going to be provided their services: Recreation, being taken to the medical clinic, in-person family visits that have to be supervised by officers?” said Michael Skelly, a spokesperson for the union, told MarketWatch. 

At a news conference on Thursday, the mayor emphasized that New Yorkers would be safe, and predicted a last-minute rush to get vaccinated among city workers. 

“We saw this with the healthcare workers. We saw this with Department of Education employees. Today and tomorrow, you’re going to see a lot of movement,” de Blasio said. “I’m not going to be shocked if you see movement even over the weekend when people get the formal notifications about their job status. We saw thousands upon thousands of vaccinations in the last days. So, this is I think, a time where you’re going to see some real changes.”

This post was originally published on Market Watch

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