Ramsey County Judge Rules in Favor of St. Paul Unions Over Vaccination Mandates

A court determined on Thursday that the city of St. Paul’s COVID vaccination policy for cops, firemen, and legions of other unionized city workers should have been discussed, and he banned the city from implementing it until it was authorized as part of a negotiated deal.

Last year, workers unions filed cases alleging that the coronavirus vaccination obligation was an unfair labor practice, and a judge agreed.

The city did not communicate with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21 before implementing “a unilateral modification to the terms and circumstances” of employment for Local 21 members, according to the firefighters’ lawsuit.

Ramsey County Judge Leonardo Castro stated in his finding that while the city did not act in bad faith by enacting the immunization mandate, it did so in an unfair labor policy.

In the judgement, Castro stated, “The City was confronted with the height of a pandemic and based its actions on what it deemed to be in the best interest of the health and safety of its employees and the public.” “There was no malice, no conspiracies, and no employee targeting.”

According to Castro, the city met with union leaders to discuss the policy but did not engage in formal bargaining.

That’s not enough, he reasoned, for a situation like injecting a foreign chemical into your own body vs losing your job.

“It is impossible for this Court to fathom what could be more invasive and detrimental to the employer-employee relationship than asking employees to give up their physical autonomy in order to keep their jobs,” he said.

Unlike rules in place at St. Paul Public Schools, Ramsey County, the city of Minneapolis, and the state of Minnesota, St. Paul’s policy does not allow employees to opt out of immunization in exchange for submitting to regular COVID-19 testing.

Mayor Melvin Carter announced the immunization requirement for the city’s almost 4,000 employees on Oct. 21. Workers who aren’t vaccinated by December 31 “shall not be authorized to work and may be subject to disciplinary,” according to the guideline. A religious exemption or accommodation owing to a medical condition or recent COVID-19 therapy was allowed under the policy.

According to an affidavit signed by Mike Smith, president of Local 21, a “substantial number” of firemen “stated… personal, moral, religious, and/or medical concerns to taking a vaccine” towards the end of last year. In November, he and the police union believed that 20% of their members had not been vaccinated. The authorized strength of the fire department is 435 people.

Chris Wachtler, an attorney for several of the unions that sued, said he was pleased with the decision but stressed that it did not reflect anti-vaccine sentiment among the unions he represents, which include firefighters and supervisors, as well as a variety of city workers in departments ranging from public works to transportation.

“The unions aren’t opposed to vaccines in general,” Wachtler explained. “That wasn’t the point of this.” This was a specific labor issue…. They (city officials) were not going to offer a testing option from the start. That’s all we’ve ever wanted.”

Before the city enacted the requirement, the unions and the city undertook minimal negotiations. Castro’s decision looks to send the city and the unions back to the negotiating table, where Wachtler expects his unions to push for an exception to the vaccination mandate, allowing employees to be tested for COVID-19 on a regular basis instead.

“I am pretty convinced that we would not have had this legal option struggle if the city had done that from the beginning,” he added.

“We’re studying the court’s order and (thinking) the best course ahead to decrease the spread and severity of COVID-19 to protect the safety of our employees and citizens,” said Kamal Baker, a spokesperson for the City of St. Paul. We are dedicated to achieving our goal of having a completely immunized staff.”

Testing’s efficiency as a strategy of reducing workplace transmission is still unknown, as contemporary coronavirus strains are usually undetectable by commonly used fast tests, even after symptoms have begun. It’s also true that the efficacy of vaccines against infection diminishes over time, even while they still lower the risk of illness, particularly hospitalization and death.

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