Arbitrator rules Philadelphia firefighter union must comply with city vaccine mandate

Philadelphia firefighters respond to the scene of a fire at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery.

File photo: Philadelphia firefighters respond to the scene of a fire at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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The union representing Philadelphia’s firefighters has come to an agreement with the City over its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

Philadelphia’s firefighters must comply with the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, an arbitrator has ruled.

The International Association of Firefighters, Local 22, sued the Kenney Administration in February, arguing the City needed to engage in collective bargaining with regard to its vaccine policy. Wednesday’s settlement marks the final hurdle to have all City employees covered by the vaccine mandate.

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According to the city’s COVID-19 data website, the Philadelphia Fire Department, which includes about 2,600 firefighters and paramedics, has the lowest vaccine rate of all city departments. As of May 24, 71% to 80% of firefighters are vaccinated. That puts firefighters in a tie with the city’s Department of Fleet Services for the lowest percentage of vaccinated workers.

Those workers now have until June 30 to get their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

“The safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines remain the best way to protect Philadelphians and save lives in the ongoing struggle to fight this pandemic,” said Mayor Jim Kenney in a statement. “As I have said before, as public servants, we bear a responsibility to mitigate the harm that would result from inadvertent transmission of COVID-19 to our colleagues and the public and to set an example for other organizations and companies.”

Issued in November, the mandate applies to non-union employees, but also its labor union partners — AFSCME District Council 33, AFSCME District Council 47, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, and Local 22 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. It went into effect on February 11. District Council 33 and District Council 47 agreed to the mandate. An arbitration panel ruled in the case of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Union leaders aren’t happy with the arbitrator’s decision.

“We are being unfairly forced by an incompetent Arbitrator to comply with language that another union (DC 33) agreed to,” firefighter’s union vice president Chuck McQuilkin said in an email to WHYY News. “The language allows the city to fire public sector union workers who do not comply with their outdated policy.”

McQuilkin called the mandate “frivolous” and said firing good firefighters because of it is “unjust.”

“We offered the lawyer representing the city alternatives to terminating our members, and she declined,” he said.

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Local 22 President Michael Bresnan wrote an opinion slamming the arbitrator’s decision as “a complete miscarriage of justice.” Bresnan also took aim at Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney for “putting political optics above logic and public safety.”

Bresnan says there is a 20% vacancy at the Fire Department. He said the arbitrator ignored evidence presented by the union that the vaccine mandate is ineffective.

Employees without a medical or religious exemption who do not submit proof of vaccination by June 30, will be put on unpaid leave a week later. Union members can use vacation and sick time during the 30-day leave. If they fail to get vaxxed within the month, they could be terminated.

Those who do have an exemption and are not vaccinated will be required to wear an N95 mask or its equivalent and be subject to regular testing.

Editor’s note: This story originally characterized the arbitrator’s ruling as an “agreement” with the fire department. It’s been corrected to reflect the fact that the ruling is not something the firefighters’ union agrees with.

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