Saint Paul’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city employees has been put on hold. Ramsey County District Court Judge Robert Awsumb issued a temporary restraining order on December 23 at the request of the Saint Paul Police Federation and the International Association of Firefighters Local 21. The city employee unions view the mandate as overly stringent with no option for regular testing of those who do not want to be vaccinated.

Mayor Melvin Carter has agreed to postpone enforcement of the vaccine mandate, which was scheduled to begin on January 1. The mayor contends that a strict policy is needed to protect public health. The matter will return to district court on January 20 for an update and scheduling conference.

Three city employee groups in all have filed suit over the vaccine mandate—the Police Federation, Firefighters Local 21 and the Tri-Council. The Tri-Council filed a separate lawsuit, and court action on that has not yet been scheduled.

In his ruling, Awsumb stated that the pertinent issue is not about the value of the vaccines…. Rather, he said, the issue is one of employee rights and whether or not the city violated the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act by implementing the vaccine policy without negotiating with the unions first.

In his ruling, Awsumb stated that the pertinent issue is not about the value of the vaccines. He cited their safety and effectiveness in preventing illness and death from COVID-19. Rather, he said, the issue is one of employee rights and whether or not the city violated the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act by implementing the vaccine policy without negotiating with the unions first.

In the absence of negotiations, the city submitted the matter to binding interest arbitration. In binding interest arbitration, parties in a dispute agree in advance to accept a decision made by a neutral third party.

City’s mandate is more stringent than others

In his written ruling, Awsumb urged the administration and unions to either continue negotiations or work with an arbitrator to resolve the dispute.

The Police Federation filed suit in November, stating that the vaccine requirement is a new condition of employment that was not negotiated with union members. The firefighters local and the Tri-Council filed similar actions in December. The three employee groups represent about a third of the city’s approximately 4,000 workers.

The Tri-Council represents employees in the departments of Public Works and Parks and Recreation as well as heavy equipment operators, snowplow operators, forestry workers, sewer and water workers in Teamsters Local 120, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, and City Employees Local 363/Laborers International Union of North America.

Saint Paul’s vaccine mandate, which was imposed by Carter over the objections of some City Council members, is more stringent than the vaccine policies of other governmental units. The state of Minnesota, city of Minneapolis, Saint Paul school district, and Ramsey and Hennepin counties all allow their employees to opt out of vaccines if they agree to regular testing.

Saint Paul’s policy called for employees to be fully vaccinated by December 31, with proof of vaccination required by January 14. Employees who did not get vaccinated by the deadline were to be put on paid leave and subject to discipline. 

The city’s policy does allow for religious exemptions and accommodations due to a medical condition or recent COVID-19 treatment. The city had received about 250 requests for exemptions prior to Awsumb’s restraining order.

— Jane McClure

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