New York City's controversial vaccine mandate for its entire municipal workforce takes effect Monday -- and despite concerns tens of thousands could be on unpaid leave, leading to critical staff shortages, Mayor Bill de Blasio says no disruptions to city services are expected.
The five boroughs have been bracing for that possibility of shortages, with union heads warning with near-certainty of imminent catastrophe, since the Democrat announced last month that starting Nov. 1, any public employees who fail to provide proof of at least one COVID vaccine dose will lose their paychecks.
But as the deadline came, de Blasio said fire, police and EMS response times were normal. Firehouses are open, he said. Sanitation workers picked up trash on a Sunday, which they typically don't do. The mayor attributed the seemingly smooth transition to effective planning and execution by agency heads, most of whom have publicly supported the mandate.
De Blasio said the number of city workers on unpaid leave as of Monday morning is 9,000, well short of the more-than-22,000 number that had been discussed over the last week. That amounts to less than 6% of the 378,000-member workforce.
They can be reinstated as soon as they comply with the mandate. Another 12,000 unvaccinated workers filed for exemptions for medical or religious reasons and can stay on the job -- with weekly COVID testing -- as their claims are processed.
Thousands of FDNY personnel have just been calling out sick, a defiance of the mandate and protocol that FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro and de Blasio both called "unacceptable." Nigro said 200 people typically come into FDNY medical offices daily. It's been 700 a day this past week. He said most are unvaccinated.
Asked whether that sickout trend is evident within other city agencies, de Blasio said he didn't believe that to the case. He said unvaccinated personnel who are found to be faking illness to avoid the mandate and keep their paychecks are “AWOL effectively” and will face internal department discipline.
"People get really troubled really quick when people don't show up to do their job if they're not really sick, and we have every reason to believe there's a lot of people out there claiming to be sick when they're not. It's not acceptable. Do the right thing. Come to work, protect people, as you took an oath to do," de Blasio said. "When people do this kind of thing there are consequences. This decision was made for the health and welfare of all New Yorkers. It's time to recognize this is the law. Get back to New York protecting the people of New York City."
Whatever the reason the remaining 21,000-plus are holding out, de Blasio once again appealed to them Monday to get on board.
"There's still a chance to fix it. Come in, get vaccinated, come back to work because we need everyone to do their job and we need everyone to be safe," he said. "This mandate was the right thing to do."
The forced unpaid leave was an ultimate disincentive, albeit a contested one, intended to boost vaccination rates among critical personnel -- from the NYPD to the FDNY to sanitation and others -- who de Blasio says should lead the city's COVID recovery effort on vaccination just as they helped lead the city through the pandemic's unprecedented crises.
City employees who complied with the mandate did receive a $500 paycheck bonus as an incentive. Altogether, the mandate has notably moved the needle on vaccination rates for the city's workforce, though some remain staunchly opposed.
As of Monday, 91% of the city's 378,000 employees were in compliance with the mandate, the mayor said. The NYPD, which employs about 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees, reported an 84% vaccination rate, up from 70% on Oct. 20, the day de Blasio announced the planned mandate expansion.
About 81% of FDNY members are now vaccinated. That breaks down to 77% of firefighters (up from 58% on Oct. 20), 88% of EMTS (up from 61 on Oct. 20%) and 91% of civilian employees. The Department of Sanitation reports an 83% vaccination rate, up from 62% in a matter of 12 days, de Blasio said. See the latest vaccination rates by NYC agency here.
"Thank you for getting vaccinated, thank you for doing the right thing, thank you for moving us forward," the Democrat said to city workers who recently got dosed.
Unions representing FDNY workers, the agency with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the city, held a news conference early Monday to address the deadline.
"All we were asking for is some extra time," said FDNY Fire Officers Association President Jim McCarthy, adding that members had nine days to make the decision.
Firefighters Association President Andrew Ansbro claimed the mandate was purely a political move by the mayor.
"This is not a city in crisis. Right now COVID rates are plummeting. Why this is being forced on us, on everybody, we believe this is a political thing," he said.
Ansbro announced Sunday that 2,000 firefighters called out sick on Sunday because they were "feeling flu-like symptoms because that’s what the shot does to people." FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro confirmed the huge number of medical leave but said they were in an apparent protest of the city's vaccine mandate.
Sources told NBC New York that more than half of firefighters who called in sick didn’t recently get vaccinated.
“Irresponsible bogus sick leave by some of our members is creating a danger for New Yorkers and their fellow Firefighters. They need to return to work or risk the consequences of their actions," Nigro said over the weekend.
Meanwhile, Nigro has also sought to put out rumors of firehouses forced to close down through each of the five boroughs. He says each time it sees a company go out of service, resources are moved to get back that company back in service.
The fire commission emphasized that the department has not closed any firehouses and said that FDNY's response time to calls has not been impacted, echoing comments de Blasio made at his briefing on Monday.
The FDNY had been looking at the potential for 20% of fire companies to be closed and 20% fewer ambulances on the road come Monday. Ansbro had said the share of fire companies that might have to close could be as high as 40%. And sanitation workers staged a slowdown in protests of the mandate before the deadline hit.
Before the latest mandate went into effect, unvaccinated employees were able to provide weekly negative COVID-19 tests in order to come to work but the test-out option is no longer available. Many who refuse to comply say they want that option reinstated. De Blasio has said the test-out isn't in the public's health best interest.
The mayor has, since announcing his plans to expand the mandate to all city employees more than a week ago, insisted first responders and others who serve and protect the people of New York City must also protect themselves, including from a virus that has now killed an estimate 34,500-plus in the five boroughs alone.
De Blasio has held firm to that contention even amid mounting protests from union members and advocates -- the latest of those being a rally of hundreds of firefighters and others outside the mayor's own official residence last week.
The courts have upheld the mayor's mandate despite challenges by the firefighters' unions and an ongoing appeal by the Police Benevolent Association, which represents the NYPD. De Blasio believes his mandate, which he says he enacted in the name of public health, will continue to prevail. Many experts agree.
The latest failed challenge came on Friday, when a federal appeals panel upheld New York state’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. The mandate for those workers and Department of Education staff went into effect weeks ago.
City jail guards have another month to comply. The deadline for them to get at least a dose is Dec. 1.