NYC faces shortage of municipal workers after thousands refuse vaccine

As of Monday, more than 9,000 municipal workers for New York City — including firefighters, police officers, and sanitation workers — were on unpaid leave for refusing to receive at least one dose of the COVID vaccine, Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

The number raises the possibility of shortages of police, fire, EMS, and sanitation workers among New York's more than 300,000 employees. A total of 24,000 workers citywide remained unvaccinated including those with reasonable accommodations for medical or religious reasons.

More than 3,500 municipal workers rushed to get their shots over the weekend, bringing the total city workforce to 91% vaccinated. 

City leaders said they are glad to see that number increase due to the mandate but a lot of anger and hesitancy remain from workers across the five boroughs.

"We still don't have answers from City Hall about what's happening with the people. How long are they going to be on leave without pay?" Oren Barzilay, the president of EMS Workers Union. "Are they going to keep their medical benefits? How long before they're terminated or given an extension?"

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RELATED: De Blasio: 9 in 10 NYC workers vaccinated as deadline nears

Leaders from firefighter unions have set up a resource center in Midtown for its members. They're also not giving up on their fight in court.

"We are demanding that the de Blasio administration give us an extension, we are negotiating as we speak," Lt. James McCarthy, the president of Uniformed Fire Officers Association, said.  "We are in court trying to get a temporary restraining order against the leave without pay provisions of the mandate."   

So far, all legal challenges to the mandate have been shot down in court.

United Firefighters Association President Andrew Ansbro told Good Day New York the city apparently made an about-face on the mandate that began to be enforced Monday.

"At 6 o'clock this morning a message came over the voice alarm saying that all members are required to stay in the firehouse until further orders," Ansbro said. "Up until last night, they were told that if you are unvaccinated by 9 o'clock you must get out. This is a reversal from what they were told last night. From what I understand is that they need to figure out how many firefighters they have this morning and what kind of fire department is going to serve New York today."

FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro expressed his disappointment that 2,300 firefighters called out sick Monday, which is more than double the amount the department would see on any given day. Nigro is also calling the staffing shortages manageable but unnecessary, claiming most of the sick calls are fake and out of protest.

"There are 18 units out of service. There are no firehouses closed. The fire department has 350 units. So let's take that in perspective," Nigro said. "If we went back a month on any given day we might find 18 units out of service for training, for maintenance, for repair of apparatus and such."

The police department, which employs about 36,000 officers and 19,000 civilian employees, reported an 84% vaccination rate as of Monday morning. NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said only 34 uniformed officers and 40 civilian members are on unpaid leave for refusing to get the shot, though thousands of others with the department remain on the job as they wait for their exemption requests to be reviewed.

"We expect as those cases are reviewed and people are either granted or denied, certainly in the case of denied, people will choose to get the vaccine," Shea said. 

Unvaccinated workers who submitted exemption requests are able to keep working as long as they get tested weekly, while they wait for results of their exemption status. 

Suffolk County could end up hiring law enforcement personnel from New York City in the wake of the mandate. Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone announced Monday that the county is hiring more than law-enforcement personnel in the next 12 months. Any NYPD cops who have already taken the Suffolk Police test, which was given in 2019, could be recruited.

Thousands of sanitation workers are still not vaccinated. De Blasio said the Sanitation Department will move to 12-hour shifts, as opposed to the usual 8-hour shifts, and begin working Sundays to ensure trash doesn't pile up.

A protest was held outside a Sanitation Department facility in the New Springville section of Staten Island on Monday night. Dozens of people protesting the vaccine mandate blocked sanitation trucks that were trying to leave the depot, a city official told FOX 5 NY. 

Police warned protesters that anyone blocking the trucks would be arrested. Officers then lined the intersection so that trucks could get out and make their rounds.

Cops took four people into custody at the scene of the protest, the NYPD said. 

A Sanitation Department spokesperson told FOX 5 NY that officials were aware of the situation, which was indeed resolved. 

"New Yorkers depend on DSNY to do a critically important job, collecting 12,000 tons of trash and recycling per day, and we depend on them to give us the space to do it safely," spokesperson Joshua Goodman said.

With The Associated Press