New York City has placed 9,000 government employees on unpaid leave, while granting temporary exceptions to another 12,000 workers who applied for medical or religious exemptions rather than comply with a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
At his morning press briefing, Mayor Bill de Blasio and commissioners for NYPD and the fire department said they didn’t expect major disruptions for first responder services. But given the large volume of exemptions, due to be decided over the coming days, the city remains in limbo. Members of the Sanitation Department also continue to mount protests, and trash pickup is still impaired.
Mayor de Blasio thanked the 91% of municipal workers who had rolled up their sleeves to get at least one dose of the COVID-19 shot by Monday morning, when the mandate’s enforcement began. The holdouts accounted for just about 6% of the city’s workforce overall of 378,000 workers.
“City workers are doing the right thing. I want to thank everyone who got vaccinated,” de Blasio said. “Thank you for doing the right thing. Thank you for moving us forward.”
As of late Sunday, the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) still has one of the lowest inoculation rates, with 25% of firefighters unvaccinated. FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said about 2,300 FDNY members had called out sick, about twice what they typically see on an average day.
“If you’re sick, you’re sick, it’s a dangerous job I get it,” Nigro said. “If you’re not sick, I want to see you back and work.”
Last week, the FDNY canceled vacation days, required members to work overtime and reassigned members to work in the field to handle staffing shortages, and over the weekend, a handful of fire companies had to close. Nigro said closures had returned to normal levels by Monday, with about 18 of 350 units across the city shuttered. But he conceded an unspecified number of units were also short-staffed.
An FDNY spokesperson said bleak predictions of as many as 20% fewer ambulances being on the road had been avoided thanks to a last minute surge in vaccinations among emergency medical service (EMS) workers, who are part of the fire department. The rate of vaccinated EMS workers jumped from 61% when the mandate was announced to 87% as of Sunday. As of Monday morning, fire officials said the number of ambulances on the road was also on par with an average day but it’s unclear if response times have been affected. The city is legally required to regularly report 911 response times but hasn’t done so since early August.
Union officials with the Uniformed Firefighters Association, which mounted vehement opposition to the mandate in recent days, planned a resource fair in Midtown for members who had been sent home without pay. The city didn’t immediately clarify how many firefighters were seeking exemptions to vaccination. A representative from the union didn’t return a request for comment before publication.
At the city’s press briefing Monday, Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said just 74 NYPD employees had been placed on unpaid leave, meaning that the vast majority of unvaccinated officers, around 8,200, were seeking exemptions of some kind. While their requests for a religious or medical exemption are evaluated, city workers can continue showing up to work, if tested for COVID-19 weekly.
Trash continued to pile up over the weekend, with an ongoing spike in 311 complaints for missed trash pickups. The city is averaging about 2,000 complaints per day -- 13 times the typical number. Even as city officials gave updates on the vaccine mandate Monday morning, out-of-work workers and demonstrators gathered outside a sanitation garage on Staten Island to protest the mandate. People on the scene reported garbage trucks being temporarily blocked before heading out.
Sanitation Commissioner Ed Grayson said workers had stayed on the clock Sunday to make up for the ongoing service delays. Through Sunday, 18% of sanitation workers had not yet gotten vaccinated..
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he expected what had happened with the city’s Department of Education when teachers were mandated to get the shot, to occur with the rest of city workers. As of Sunday, 96% of the public school workforce had been vaccinated but that rate hasn’t changed in weeks. Several hundred teachers had qualified for exemptions out of more than 161,000 employees.
After an evaluation and appeals process, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he expected some of those employees requesting exemptions to eventually be denied. Only severe allergies to specific ingredients in the vaccines technically qualify, as well as followers of a handful of non-major religions -- such as Christian Scientists -- or those who can prove sincerely held beliefs.
“Time and time again we’ve put the mandates in place, and they’ve worked,” de Blasio said.