In a blow to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vaccine mandate for all teachers without exception, an arbitrator has ruled the city needs to provide accommodations to staff with medical conditions or religious beliefs that preclude them from getting a COVID-19 vaccine.
The decision — coming late Friday, just days before the start of the new school year — declares that public school teachers who refused to get inoculated against COVID-19 have to be offered unpaid leave or a severance package.
Under the ruling, authored by meditator Martin Scheinman, most teachers can stay on payroll while their application for a vaccine or medical exemption is being heard, or if they appeal a denial of their request.
Teachers who resign due to refusal to get jabbed won’t be immediately fired; they will be able to take leave without pay and will be entitled to health insurance through September 2022, the decision states.
Teachers who get vaccinated while on leave without pay and provide proof of a jab to the DOE before Nov. 30, “shall have a right of return to the same school as soon as is practicable,” the ruling reads.
The decision also bars objections to the vaccine on political and philosophical grounds, and puts in place strict criteria on who is allowed to be exempt because of their religious beliefs or medical condition.
“As a group, teachers have overwhelmingly supported the vaccine, but we have members with medical conditions or other reasons for declining vaccination,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said after the ruling.
“After our demand for independent arbitration, the city backed off its initial position that all unvaccinated personnel be removed from payroll, and will offer out-of-classroom work for those with certified medical or other conditions.
“The city has also agreed – based on the arbitrator’s determination – to create both a leave process and a severance agreement for other teachers who feel that they cannot comply with the vaccination mandate,” Mulgrew added.
De Blasio announced Aug. 23 that all DOE staffers need to receive at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 27. Students return to Big Apple public school classrooms for the start of the school year on Monday.
Schools Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter said of the ruling, “Our vaccine mandate was put into place for the health and safety of our children, and the protection of our employees.”
“We’re pleased that the binding arbitration was issued before the first day of school and we will swiftly implement the terms,” she added in a statement Friday. “There will be over 700 vaccination sites in our schools across the City every day next week, and we encourage all DOE employees to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”
The decision comes on the heels of the union vowing to arbitrate the specifics of the vaccine mandate along with other labor groups. While Mulgrew has acknowledged the vaccine mandate will be enacted, he lamented last week that talks with city officials had entered “a very bad place” over issues like medical concerns.
“It’s clear that the two sides are very very far apart when it comes to this vaccine mandate,” Mulgrew told reporters on Sept. 2 following a Town Hall with members.
Last month, union leaders representing 350,000 city workers announced they were filing a legal action to stop de Blasio from enacting a vaccine mandate for Department of Education employees without their input. The labor leaders on Friday followed through on their pledge to file a lawsuit.
The unions claim in their suit that they “support vaccination and encourage all employees to vaccinate if they are able,” but claim the mayor’s rule is “poorly-conceived” and “coercive.”
The DOE said it supported the arbitrator’s ruling as fair and supportive of its vaccine mandate.
“Given federal and state law, we believe we had to provide a narrow religious exemption,” a DOE spokeswoman said.
“We are pleased with the arbitration and always supported narrow and specific accommodations for those with valid medical and religious exemptions!,” the spokeswoman said. “This is consistent with what our medical experts believe is appropriate, and what we always knew would be part of the impact bargaining for our vaccine mandate.”
Additional reporting by Nolan Hicks