Philadelphia officials have again declined to impose a stricter vaccine mandate on municipal workers –– even as the city revealed that barely one in 10 police officers and less than a quarter of all firefighters have submitted proof of vaccination.
While other large cities, such as Chicago and New York, are toughening enforcement of vaccine mandates for municipal employees –– and dealing with blowback from vaccine-hesitant workers –– officials in Philadelphia doubled down on their current policy of voluntary compliance.
“We don’t have that type of vaccine mandate that New York has,” Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, interim head of the city’s Department of Public Health, said at a Wednesday press conference. “It’s not a ‘vaccine-or-be-terminated’ mandate, it’s a requirement to either be vaccinated or double-mask.”
But experts like Esther Chernak, director of the Center for Public Health Readiness and Communication at Drexel University, say there is no good reason not to impose an enforceable mandate, especially among those workers charged with public safety.
“I think that the position that New York City and Chicago have taken is the correct one,” said Chernak. “I would like to see us take that position here. I see that working in my own health care environment — I think everyone around me should be vaccinated.”
More than a month and a half after the city put its double-masking rules into effect for its workers, the needle has barely moved on the number of vaccinations being reported.
In September, after the double-masking rule went into effect, the city reported that 31% of municipal workers had reported being vaccinated. On Tuesday, the city confirmed that the figure was little changed now: Just 34% of the municipal workforce, or 10,229 employees, reported being vaccinated.
The figures were even lower for uniformed employees such as police officers: Just 13% of the police department and 23% of fire department staff had provided proof of vaccination by this week. For comparison, in cities where mandates are set to go into effect in the coming weeks, COVID-19 vaccination rates are significantly higher: 69% of New York police officers have received at least one shot. About half of Chicago officers have, with 35% refusing to report their status. In San Francisco, where a mandate for all city workers goes into effect Nov. 1, 97% of Sheriff Department employees are vaccinated.
Relying on voluntary reporting is not a reliable strategy, Chernak said.
“At this point, we’ve hit the ceiling where people who want to get vaccinated are vaccinated, and I think the mandate will absolutely push a significant percentage of people who are ambivalent towards the sides of getting vaccinations,” she said.
Philadelphia city officials counter that the reported rates likely understate the true number of vaccinated employees, as some may have simply failed to provide evidence of their vaccination status. Labor unions, such as Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said in May that closer to half of their membership had gotten the jab –– although this week the FOP declined to update these figures, deferring to the numbers reported by the mayor’s office.
The president and a vice president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 22 have released similar totals, but they declined to respond to media requests this week.
The city does have mandates in place for health care workers and workers in educational settings. The latter mandate went into effect this week, while the former was extended until Oct. 22. Drexel’s Chernak said that because of their duties protecting the public, police officers should be subject to mandates the same way health care workers are.
“There’s a reason why the military requires all manner of vaccines and now is requiring COVID-19,” she said. “You need to have a workforce that you can rely on. These are critical, critical positions, critical roles for the city.”
Hard to enforce, hard to report
Bettigole acknowledged that the low reporting rates may be because the mandate has no teeth.
“We haven’t necessarily seen terrific uptake in terms of people submitting those results,” she said Wednesday. “That result means that many city workers have to double-mask in the office. I think people may be comfortable with that at this stage.”
Under the city’s own policy, 65% of its workers should be double- masking. But without requiring employees to submit their vaccination status, the city has little way of practically enforcing its mandate.
The city says it largely delegated enforcement of its policy to human resources managers and has asked department heads “to develop their own protocols.” But, perhaps as a result, city employees, speaking on the condition of anonymity, described wildly varying day-to-day experiences at different municipal offices.
Not all employees have returned to in-person work, and others are only appearing in the office a few days a week. But some of those who have returned said, anecdotally, that they hadn’t seen anyone actually observing –– or enforcing -– the double-masking rule.
One senior police official bemoaned a lack of guidance from higher-ups in the department, saying it was extremely difficult to know when or how to address a perceived lack of masking, given the lack of reporting.
“No one is really enforcing it. There’s no internal guidance,” the official said. “We’re not supposed to ask if people are vaccinated, so it doesn’t make sense to have the double-mask policy.”
Low vaccine reporting may also be due to hard-to-use employee software. The police official said the city had instructed employees to use new payroll software, known as “One Philly,” to submit proof of vaccination. But that software has been plagued by glitches and other usability issues.
“They didn’t exactly make it easy to submit your vaccine status,” the official said. “They’re supposed to do it through the payroll system, which has been a disaster.”
Others said municipal labor unions seemed similarly hesitant to intervene due to the “political controversy” surrounding vaccines –– other cities have seen staff, like police officers, walk off the job over mandates.
Back in August, Philadelphia’s largest municipal employee union, AFSCME District Council 33, issued a statement describing the threat COVID-19 posed to worker safety, but that statement avoided endorsing such a mandate that would result in employment consequences.
“We realize many believe a vaccine mandate is the only way to save lives and prevent the immeasurable suffering COVID can cause,” District Council 33 president Ernest Garrett wrote in a public letter. “If the City of Philadelphia or any other employer of our union’s members issues a vaccine mandate, we will … make sure our members are treated fairly.”
The city says it is working to encourage reporting: offering four hours of time off to those who uploaded their vaccine cards to the payroll system, and a $150 to $200 bonus to corrections officers.
The city has also insisted that department heads have independently gathered lists of their unvaccinated employees for compliance purposes. However, spokesperson James Garrow said the city’s Department of Public Health did not know how many such employees there were.
“Departments have developed their own protocols for how that information is disseminated to supervisors to allow them to ensure employees are double-masking. This is not data that the Health Department maintains, and so I cannot produce it,” Garrow said.
But multiple sources at the city said this was not happening in practice either.
In a tight labor market, officials may be understandably concerned that workers would rather quit than get vaccinated. But experts caution health officers not to craft policy based on assumptions.
Jessica Fishman, whose Message Effects lab at the University of Pennsylvania is studying the effect of vaccine mandates among other proposed tactics for increasing vaccination rates, said that historical data shows vaccine mandates of various kinds have been successful in the United States.
“There’s been a lot of fears about mandates,” she said. “But until we have data to support those fears, it seems unwise to make decisions based on just fear alone.”
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