As the latest deadline for Chicago police officers to get the COVID-19 vaccine came and went Wednesday, the remaining holdouts in the department found themselves once again facing off with the city over who would blink first.
Under a court-ordered arbitrator’s ruling in February, the approximately 12,000 employees of the Chicago Police Department had until Wednesday to get the second shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the first shot of the Johnson & Johnson version.
That decision came after months of contention between Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President John Catanzara over her vaccination requirement for all city employees, a rivalry that played out in public finger-pointing and, at one point, dueling lawsuits.
As of Monday, 2,120 Police Department members remained unvaccinated; the city did not have more updated figures on Wednesday. But not all unvaccinated cops face losing their police powers as a result of failing to comply, as 1,439 of them have approved religious and medical exemptions.
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That means up to 681 police employees — or 5.5% of the Police Department — could be refusing to get the vaccine without a valid accommodation in place. Those who aren’t waiting on a pending exemption could be placed on no-pay status, should the city decide to enforce its mandate by stripping their police powers as it has in the past, albeit gradually.
A much greater number of department employees have been denied their exemption request: 3,254. And 571 are still waiting on a response to their applications.
Fifteen Chicago police employees were on no-pay status as of Wednesday, according to department spokesman Tom Ahern. He and the mayor’s office did not respond to questions on how urgently they would move on penalizing more officers, though in the past Lightfoot has warned all that city employees still defying the vaccination order will lose pay.
“All city employees, including Chicago police officers, who fail to comply may also face disciplinary action, up to and including termination. These decisions will be addressed at an individual and department level, and are being undertaken in a manner that will not impact public safety or the continuity of everyday government operations,” her office had said in a March statement.
Catanzara did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday, though he posted a YouTube video Monday that discussed the topic, including: “We’re not letting it sit as is. We’re going to address the issues that remain … This just needs to stop, and the city could put a stop to it tomorrow.”
The police union leader’s standoff with City Hall began last August, when Lightfoot announced her directive that all city employees had until Oct. 15 to report their vaccination status but could choose to undergo regular COVID-19 testing, rather than get shots, through the end of the year. After some verbal sparring that included Catanzara likening the mandate to Nazi Germany — for which he apologized — the two sides filed lawsuits against each other in October.
The city’s claimed that Catanzara’s repeated comments instructing his union members to defy the mandate constituted an illegal strike, while the FOP’s lawsuit centered on Lightfoot implementing the policy without collective bargaining, according to court records.
The city ultimately tossed its challenge, though not before one judge put a temporary restraining order on Catanzara, forbidding him from making public comments encouraging his members to disobey the city’s vaccination rules.
Meanwhile, the FOP succeeded in getting the Dec. 31 date for members to be fully inoculated briefly suspended by a judge, who said the matter needed to go through arbitration. But the union was dealt a blow when the arbitrator in February said the city did not violate its collective bargaining agreements with the FOP and other police unions in laying out its COVID-19 vaccination policy last year.
The arbitrator ruling set a March 13 deadline for officers to receive a first dose of the shot, with a second shot due by April 13, though it allowed for extensions when someone has made a good-faith effort to get a first-shot appointment.
Attempts by the union to scuttle that decision have so far been unsuccessful.
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