More than two months after the City Council requested one, Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter announced on October 21 a new policy mandating that every city employee be vaccinated against COVID-19 by December 31. The vaccine policy is one of the most stringent in the state. Though it provides for exemptions for medical and religious reasons, it does not allow employees the option to decline the vaccine and instead submit to regular testing for COVID-19.
 
Carter said the vaccine policy is necessary to protect the many people with whom city employees come in contact on the job.
 
The Carter administration had been involved in several weeks of discussion with the city’s labor unions over the vaccine mandate, and judging from comments made prior to the mayor’s announcement, many city workers are not happy with it.
 
More than 100 people turned out for a City Council budget hearing on October 13 at the Como Lakeside Pavilion, many of them employees of the city’s departments of Public Works, Fire, and Parks and Recreation. While a few people spoke about taxes, public safety and capital improvements, the testimony was dominated by city workers concerned about wages, benefits and the prospect of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
 
melvin carter
Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter

 

A group of unions representing about 280 city employees in Public Works, Parks and Rec and Saint Paul Regional Water Services rejected a two-year contract offer from the city on October 5. Those members of Teamsters 120, Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 363 and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49 voted to give the go-ahead for a strike.

The workers objected to the city’s proffered wage and benefit package, which provides no pay increase in the first year of the contract and an increase of 1.5 percent in the second year. City officials have said the package is in line with what other bargaining units have been offered. Seven bargaining units have already agreed to their contracts.

John Wegleitner of the Fire Department called the proposal to not allow weekly testing “draconian.” If city employees who refuse vaccines are fired, it could cause chaos and greatly affect city services, he said.

“Are you ready to make a medical decision affecting city employees?” Ryan Christopherson of the Fire Department asked the City Council. “We’ve come to work every day. All we’re asking for is the option to take the test.”

At Como on October 13, city workers clapped and cheered in response to the testimony of fellow workers at the hearing. “You really need to take care of the people that take care of Saint Paul,” said Jason George, a Public Works employee and business manager of Local 49. He and other city workers emphasized that snowplowing, street maintenance, recreational services and the cleanup of homeless camps and streets littered with the remains of civil unrest cannot be done remotely.

“We do the dirty work,” said International Brotherhood of Teamsters organizer Paul Slattery. “We’re not allowed to sit at home. We’re out in the trenches. We implore you to settle this contract.”

Pat Mitchell of Parks and Recreation, a leader in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, spoke of how some parks employees have slept in their vehicles for fear of exposing family members to COVID-19 after work.

Workers object to lack of COVID testing option

Several city workers asked the City Council about the city’s proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate. “Are any of you folks doctors? Raise your hands,” said Dave Joplin, a 28-year Public Works employee.

City Council members have disagreed with the Carter administration over the policy and whether employees should be allowed to opt out of the vaccine. They would like to allow employees who are not vaccinated to submit to weekly testing for COVID-19 instead.

Fire Department personnel have likely had the most exposure to COVID-19 of any city employees, according to Patrick Conner, a firefighter and paramedic. While he and others in the Fire Department support a vaccine requirement, he said, they want workers’ personal freedoms considered.

John Wegleitner of the Fire Department called the proposal to not allow weekly testing “draconian.” If city employees who refuse vaccines are fired, it could cause chaos and greatly affect city services, he said.

“Are you ready to make a medical decision affecting city employees?” Ryan Christopherson of the Fire Department asked the City Council. “We’ve come to work every day. All we’re asking for is the option to take the test.”

Vaccine policy is too stringent, council member Prince says

Ward 7 City Council member Jane Prince said in a Facebook post that she was unhappy with the stringent policy. “While I’m a strong supporter of vaccinations for all, I’m deeply disappointed that Mayor Carter is ignoring the reasonable requests of our employees and their unions to follow the same policies as the state of Minnesota, Ramsey County, the Saint Paul Public Schools, the city of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the University of Minnesota, which allow for routine testing.

“I want to remind Mayor Carter that hundreds of our Saint Paul employees worked on the front lines when there were no safeguards from getting COVID,” Prince said. “Many suffered its impacts themselves, or brought this disease home to loved ones, who also suffered and even died from the disease. Some employees found other living arrangements temporarily so as not to endanger their families. They received no hazard pay, nor did they seek a reprieve from doing their jobs to serve us.”

As of October 22, it was not clear what would happen to city employees who do not get vaccinated by the deadline.

— Jane McClure

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