New York Braces for Worker Shortage as Vaccination Deadline Nears

By Sharon Otterman, Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Troy Closson

Mayor Bill de Blasio predicted that serious disruptions would be avoided, even as thousands of police officers, firefighters and other essential workers remain unvaccinated.

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The mandate requires city workers to get at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine or go on unpaid leave. Officials are bracing for staffing shortages when the mandate takes effect.CreditCredit...Mike Segar/Reuters

City officials are bracing for the possibility that thousands of essential workers — including police officers, firefighters and sanitation employees — could be placed on unpaid leave starting Monday, when the city’s sweeping mandate requiring that almost all municipal workers receive at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine takes effect.

With just over one-third of the workers in the Fire and Sanitation Departments, and one-quarter of the police force, yet to prove that they had been vaccinated as of Thursday morning, city agencies were putting in place an array of contingency plans, including mandating overtime for vaccinated workers and canceling vacations to fill staffing gaps.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat in his second term who issued the mandate, predicted on Thursday that many city workers would get a shot at the last minute, as happened just before similar mandates took effect in recent months for health care workers and school employees.

“I am not having second thoughts,” Mr. de Blasio said, adding that he was confident the city would not face serious disruptions. “We expected that a lot of the vaccinations would happen toward the end of the deadline.”

But defiance of the mandate is running high among some workers. In a protest outside the mayor’s residence, Gracie Mansion, on Thursday, many demonstrators wore sweatshirts and shirts bearing Fire Department engine and ladder company numbers from across the city. Union leaders led chants of “Hold the line!” and took aim at Mr. de Blasio for ordering vaccinations on what they said was too short a timeline.

Andrew Ansbro, the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association, a firefighters’ union, said he had instructed all his members — vaccinated or not — to come to work on Monday in hopes of demonstrating that if any are turned away, the possible loss of life of life caused by understaffing would be on the mayor’s head.

“It’s his choice to put the lives he’s entrusted with in jeopardy,” Mr. Ansbro told the protesters.

With the mayoral election looming next Tuesday, Curtis Sliwa, the Republican contender and an opponent of the vaccine mandate, also attended Thursday’s protest and said that there would soon be “garbage everywhere” if sanitation workers stay home.

“The city is in bad shape now, and it’ll be in worse shape when you call 911,” Mr. Sliwa said.

The Democratic mayoral nominee and overwhelming favorite, Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, supports the mandate, but he has said he would have worked more closely with unions than Mr. de Blasio did to implement it.

The mandate applies to roughly 160,000 city employees at some three dozen agencies, including some with very high vaccination rates among their staff, such as the Landmarks Preservation Commission, with a perfect 100 percent, and the Mayor’s Office at 96 percent. An additional 140,000 city workers, mainly hospital, public health and school employees, were already required to be vaccinated under earlier mandates.

New York is one of the first major American cities to require that its entire work force receive the vaccination — without the option of getting regular coronavirus tests instead. San Francisco set a similar vaccine mandate for its 35,000 city workers, which goes into effect on Monday, and Los Angeles and Chicago have been pushing public workers to get vaccinated. Among states, Washington and Massachusetts are requiring state employees to be fully vaccinated.

All workers placed on unpaid leave can return to work as soon as they show proof of a first vaccine dose, the city has said. The city has not yet announced how long workers may stay on leave before they are fired, and expects to work that out with the unions.

Dire predictions of job loss also preceded each of the last two vaccine mandates — one for the tens of thousands of Department of Education employees, which went into effect on Oct. 4, and again for over a million health care workers across the state, which went into effect around the same time.

In each case, thousands of holdouts appeared for shots at the last minute — and in some cases, after the deadlines — boosting vaccination rates among health care and education employees to around 95 percent, the city said.

Mayor de Blasio said he was counting on the same thing happening again with the city’s remaining unvaccinated workers, who numbered 46,000 as of last week. The official deadline for their first dose is Friday at 5 p.m., but unvaccinated workers can work though the weekend before being put on unpaid leave on Monday.

And workers who show up on Monday with proof of vaccination will be allowed to work.

ImageMayor Bill de Blasio said he was not having second thoughts about the mandate for city workers, including police officers.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was not having second thoughts about the mandate for city workers, including police officers.Credit...Benjamin Norman for The New York Times

Unions representing police officers and firefighters have filed lawsuits in New York and in other cities to block vaccine mandates. In New York, an 11th-hour challenge from the Police Benevolent Association failed to persuade a state judge on Wednesday to issue a temporary restraining order against the mandate.

Requests for medical or religious exemptions for city workers were due on Wednesday, and employees who applied will be permitted to work if they undergo weekly testing while their cases are considered. That may provide a partial cushion against employee shortfalls in the short-term.

But Mr. de Blasio has made clear that in the long term, only limited exemptions will be granted.

Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for District Council 37, the city’s largest municipal labor union, said the union was trying to help its workers “get religious and medical exemptions where appropriate, and for others we want to make sure they maintain health insurance and, in some cases, can receive unemployment if they choose to fully separate from city service.”

All the holdout workers were also offered $500 as a bonus if they got vaccinated by the end of the workday Friday. Mr. de Blasio said he was offering the cash “out of respect for the people who’ve done so much for us.”

Some were taking advantage; on Thursday over 700 police officers got vaccinated, the department announced. The Fire Department said that its overall vaccination rate as of Thursday night had jumped to 71 percent from 68 percent on Wednesday. But among other holdouts, the incentive did not resonate.

“The mayor seems to have forgotten the sacrifices we made during the pandemic,” said Oren Barzilay, head of the city’s Emergency Medical Services workers union, at the protest. “Not seeing family members for months on end, long-term health effects and even death. We had a choice then, and our members chose to come to work despite the hazards. Where is our choice now?”

Until Oct. 20, it was acceptable for unvaccinated city workers to get tested weekly instead of getting vaccinated. Giving them only one week to change gears and get a shot was too quick, said Gregory Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, which represents more than 18,000 municipal workers in New York City.

“Two more weeks should be given for those unvaccinated workers to decide on what is best for themselves and their families,” he said.

Police Commissioner Dermot F. Shea said on Wednesday the Police Department was preparing for potentially significant officer shortages and had been asking officers to work double shifts and overtime.

Fire officials are preparing for the absence of up to 20 percent of ambulances from the streets and the closure of one-fifth of fire stations on Monday.

“We will use all means at our disposal, including mandatory overtime, mutual aid from other E.M.S. providers, and significant changes to the schedules of our members,” Fire Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said in a statement.

Fire officials said they had held virtual meetings with uniformed staff, urging them to get vaccinated. The officials will reassign workers from desk roles to positions in the field. Officials also canceled scheduled vacations after Nov. 1 in preparation. Emergency medical workers from private hospitals and volunteer services are expected to fill staffing gaps.

Uniformed correction officers have an extra month — until Dec. 1 — to get vaccinated. Mr. de Blasio said they were not subject to the Nov. 1 deadline because of a severe staffing shortage at the Rikers Island jail complex.

As the rally on Thursday broke up and the crowd dwindled down to a few dozen people, Kem Farmer, a paramedic from the Bronx, said he would continue to show up at work unvaccinated because he didn’t trust the shots, “and if they send me home, they send me home.”

With 33 years on the job, Mr. Farmer, 62, said he had enough savings to cover his bills for four months. He is also eligible to retire if it comes to it. He acknowledged that less senior co-workers don’t have the same options.

“All the new kids coming in, I tell them, ‘If you have to, take the vaccination,’” he said. “But there are still a lot of young holdouts that are saying, ‘I’m going to wait until the last minute.’”

Dana Rubinstein and Sean Piccoli contributed reporting.