New York City municipal workers have rushed to get COVID-19 vaccinations in recent days, raising the group’s overall coverage to 91% through Saturday evening.
But progress has stalled among key workforces such as first responders and sanitation workers, and enforcement of the mandate begins on Monday. Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to send home all unvaccinated employees without pay, but some workers are already calling in sick. Service interruptions, namely trash pickup, are deepening.
About 1 in 5 sanitation workers — 21% — missed Friday's deadline for the shots and remained unvaccinated. This tally improved only two percentage points on Saturday. Similar stagnation applied to the city’s firefighters, except a larger portion there — 27% — have not taken at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Large gaps also remain intact for emergency medical services (EMS) workers and the NYPD — both with 16% uninoculated.
About 12,000 staff for first responder agencies and 2,100 sanitation workers face the prospect of unpaid leave starting Monday. That includes 8,300 NYPD employees and 3,900 people with FDNY. Overall, about 24,200 municipal employees still remain unvaccinated. The size of New York City’s workforce is approximately 378,000 people, according to the mayor’s office.
Critical services are already being impacted. Throughout the weekend members of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) calling out sick forced several companies to temporarily close, according to Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. But he and an FDNY spokesperson declined to provide specific numbers.
“Irresponsible bogus sick leave by some of our members is creating a danger for New Yorkers and their fellow firefighters,” Nigro said. “They need to return to work or risk the consequences of their actions.”
City officials clarified no full firehouses had to close, contrary to some news reports that emerged over the weekend. It was just certain companies within each firehouse. A spokesperson for the mayor accused The New York Post of publishing such a falsehood.
An FDNY spokesperson said companies, not firehouses, go out of service when resources are diminished. But they confirmed that 2,000 firefighter personnel had been out on medical leave over the past week.
"The excessive sick leave by a group of our Firefighters because of their anger at the vaccine mandate for all city employees is unacceptable, contrary to their oaths to serve, and may endanger the lives of New Yorkers,” Nigro said.
A spokesperson from the Uniformed Firefighter Association pushed back on allegations of a sickout saying many firefighters in its union who’d recently gotten vaccinated called out if they were feeling under the weather, in accordance with FDNY’s policy.
The NYPD has also had to redeploy staff due to vaccine holdouts, according to one detective, who requested that his name be withheld because he was not authorized to speak to the press. The NYC Police Pension Fund held a two-day retirement drive at the end of last week for employees who didn’t want to take the vaccines before the mandate took full effect.
“It’s obviously chaotic,” he said. “With retirements and vestiges, they’re reassigning people who aren’t on patrol to patrol to cover the shortages.”
The NYPD did not immediately respond to requests for comment about these apparent staffing changes. In an email, NYPD Sergeant Edward Riley said the agency expanded times and city-run locations where officers could be vaccinated through the weekend.
As of Friday, Belinda Mager, a spokesperson for the city’s Sanitation Department said they were experiencing service delays. To cope, the department had put workers on 12-hour shifts, had workers stay on the clock Sunday and all days off had been canceled.
Despite those measures, 311 service requests showed complaints about missed trash pickups continued to spike through the end of the week, with 2,725 complaints Friday. That’s up from around 150 a day before the vaccine mandate was announced and about 1,200 on Tuesday. Mager also said the planned expansion of the city’s long-stalled composting program had been put on hold.
The vaccination rate among the Department of Correction remains the lowest among city agencies — at 60% with one dose — but has improved 9% since the mayor announced the new mandate on October 20th. That’s despite many corrections officers having their deadline extended to December to avoid worsening staffing shortages at city jails.
This story was updated with statements and data from FDNY about medical leave.