Now that our collective sense of emergency from COVID-19 is easing, the courts continue to wrestle with how far the right of public employees to refuse vaccinations must go.
Last week, acting state Supreme Court Justice Lyle Frank struck down New York City’s vaccination mandate for NYPD officers. Frank, who sits on the bench in Manhattan, ruled this is subject to collective bargaining. Frank happens to be the judge who earlier this year made headlines by underscoring the city’s obligation to adhere to its earlier health-insurance commitments to retired union members.
Officials have suspended the policy of putting cops who didn’t comply with the vaccine mandate on unpaid leave, then firing them if they missed the deadline for the shot. The Adams administration is preparing an appeal. It’s worth noting that other unions, such as District Council 37 and Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association Teamsters Local 831, saw fit to accept vaccine mandates, with some exceptions, as part of agreements reached last year.
Looking past lingering legal issues, however, the moment has come for those running public agencies to consider as a matter of policy why and how vaccine refusal became popular among parts of the rank and file — and what it may mean for future pandemic operations.
It’s time for those who track these things to study and dissect exactly what we’ve seen of vaccine refusal in the workforce in the city, in Nassau County, in Suffolk, and upstate.
One hard question to answer will be whether it was worth the risk to the public to lose the firefighters, police or teachers who let themselves be canned or suspended for resisting public health mandates.
Anyone who looks into this will hear about courageous emergency workers who skillfully carried out important tasks — above and beyond the call of duty — and then had his or her trusted colleagues convince them not to get the shot.
In other cases, specious “theories” and contrived doubts about the vaccine were just excuses to justify a knee-jerk anti-authority impulse, that says: “I don’t want anyone telling me what to do.”
One longtime municipal union official sees irony in the complaints of "anti-government government workers." Should those who signed up in the anti-vax fad be reinstated but viewed dimly for future promotions and hiring? That's the kind of policy question that lies ahead.
Another veteran of city service tells with amusement of a "hippy-dippy" friend who believes in "natural remedies" and had to be talked into getting the shot or be fired — but is skilled, industrious and a star on the job.
Asserting one’s rights is not the same as doing the right thing, especially for a public servant. There's a true conflict between a career commitment to protect safety and health and an unwillingness to take a small and specific action designed to protect safety and health.
High callings demand hard evaluation. Ultimately, the reason to explore — with respect — how anti-vax sentiment spread among a stubborn minority of municipal employees is that so many are performing difficult jobs and at any moment may face the ultimate sacrifice.
Out of the blue in Queens Thursday, Alison Russo, a 61-year-old EMS lieutenant and Huntington resident, was fatally stabbed, allegedly by a deranged person arrested after barricading himself in his apartment. The horror highlights the value of these front-line professionals — and how the public relies daily on the judgment of those who serve.
Columnist Dan Janison's opinions are his own.