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Judge says Chicago can’t fire cops who defy vaccine mandate, for now

Officers stand near crime scene tape. (Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
November 03, 2021

A judge in Illinois temporarily blocked the city of Chicago this week from being able to dismiss union police officers refusing to comply with the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate without first arbitrating with police unions.

The Chicago Tribune reported that Cook County Judge Raymond Mitchell granted a partial temporary restraining order on Monday, allowing the city to go forward with its requirement that city employees be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of the year, but ruling police officers cannot be fired for refusing the vaccine until the city arbitrates the issue further with its police unions.

The lawsuit was brought by the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, with Chicago police unions for sergeants, lieutenants and captains, acting as co-plaintiffs.

Under Chicago’s original vaccine regimen, all city employees had to report their vaccination status by October 15; a rule with which thousands of first responders in the city did not comply. The city also had a December 31 deadline for city employees to be fully vaccinated.

The city’s plan was to place those who did not report their vaccination status by October 15 on no-pay status. With Mitchell’s ruling, officers may still be placed on no-pay status, but the December 31 deadline to be fully vaccinated or face consequences will no longer apply to the city’s police union members and the parties will instead need to resolve their differences through arbitration.

Monday’s ruling only applies to police union members and not to other city employees. Other city employee groups are continuing to challenge the mandate. Last week a federal judge refused to grant an emergency request filed by 130 Chicago firefighters and other city employees to halt the mandate. This week another group of city employees filed a federal lawsuit challenging the city’s mandate.

In their arguments, the police unions said the city is relying on “a stream of histrionics about the dangers of COVID-19 to support its claim” that it needs to implement its vaccine mandate despite four pre-established bargaining agreements with the city’s police unions.

Mitchell ruled against one of the city’s arguments, that union employees already have a mechanism for disputing the city’s mandates through a union grievance process.

“’Obey now, grieve later’ is not possible” with the Dec. 31 vaccine deadline,” Mitchell wrote. “If every union member complied … they would have no grievance to pursue and there would be no remedy an arbitrator could award. An award of back pay or reinstatement cannot undo a vaccine. Nothing can.”

Following the Monday court decision, FOP Lodge 7 President John Catanzara released a YouTube video calling the decision “a small victory.”

“Today was a good day,” Catanzara began. “Not a great day, but a good day. “It’s not time to spike the football or end zone dance at this point. But thankfully, Judge Mitchell heard our argument that we’ve been saying all along: This fight was about collective bargaining rights.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said the city’s lawyers are reviewing Mitchell’s ruling “and looking at what our legal options are.” Lightfoot noted other courts, including the U.S. 7th District, have ruled in favor of allowing vaccine mandates to proceed.

“I’m not aware of a single instance in which a mandate put in place has been invalidated,” Lightfoot said.