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Chris Stockbridge put it bluntly: “None of us are anti-vaxxers.”
Stockbridge, a co-president of Boston’s AFSCME Local 1631 who often goes by the nickname, “Tiger,” received the COVID-19 vaccine and a booster shot.
It was his choice. He’d lived through some of the pandemic’s most grueling and painful consequences: He lost his mother to the virus.
Six days later, his brother was in a coma with COVID at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Brighton, he said.
“The last thing I want on my conscience is that I made somebody sick,” Stockbridge said Friday, as he testified virtually before a Boston City Council committee on behalf of his union, representing the city’s code enforcement, animal control, and assessors.
Many of those fellow union members are vaccinated, too.
And so the gripe with Mayor Michelle Wu’s policy that all city employees be vaccinated against COVID-19, Stockbridge said, is simple: That a pandemic cannot be the reason to forfeit collective bargaining rights.
“We’re looking for a partnership and we’re just getting, ‘It’s our way or the highway,'” Stockbridge said. “And that’s just unacceptable.”
Stockbridge’s argument, along with his frustration and confusion over what’s ensued since Wu unveiled the policy in December, was a common one councilors heard Friday.
The Committee on City Services and Innovation Technology held the hearing to discuss the details of a memorandum of agreement for unions of city employees related to the mandate.
Some councilors pushed for the public health metrics that guard the envisioned employee mandate, alongside the city policy that requires vaccination to enter certain indoor spaces.
“I want to know who was in the room when we decided to take rights away from business owners, take rights away from our workforce,” said Councilor Frank Baker, a vocal critic of both policies who believes councilors have been kept in the dark.
At one point, Baker, after hearing from a top health official for the city, accused Wu of making decisions based on politics, not science.
The administration, he said, “refuses to have a conversation here.”
“As the City has done from the beginning of the pandemic, our top priority is to keep our residents safe,” a city spokesperson told Boston.com in an emailed statement on Friday afternoon. “We will continue to work together with the Boston Public Health Commission to protect the health of all Boston residents, including City employees.”
At Friday’s hearing, councilors, and the public, gained little insight, if any at all, into the Wu administration’s approach to ongoing labor talks.
Under the city charter, councilors are unable to make contracts with public employees. Councilors, therefore, were unable to engage in a back-and-forth dialogue with union representatives and offered only statements instead.
Similarly, the director of the city’s Office of Labor Relations was not present at the hearing, due to the ongoing collective bargaining talks.
The only representative of the Wu administration present was Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, the city’s commissioner of public health, who could only speak to pandemic conditions in Boston, not matters regarding workforce relations.
Still, Ojikutu defended the administration’s actions and said she believes both policies “were necessary” to prevent COVID spread, severe illness, and death.
“I think that’s consistent with our authority to protect the health and well-being of the public and our workforce,” she said.
Asked about the city’s vaccination rates since the mandate was announced, Ojikutu said there was a 17 percent increase in vaccinations within the first week-and-a-half of the indoor vaccine policy around Jan. 18, although that metric was citywide and not limited the city’s workforce.
Ojikutu said the city is working on developing a survey for people to take during their first vaccine dose appointment regarding what motivated them to get the shot.
“It’s obviously in our interest to know what is it that triggers people to be vaccinated,” she said. “But we did see that increase.”
The city’s public workforce is, by large, vaccinated: Officials have said approximately 95 percent of city employees have gotten the jab, with many departments seeing rates of over 90 percent.
Generally, Ojikutu said she is “optimistic” about where the city currently stands in the health crisis. Boston could fall below key metric thresholds set by Wu as requirements for dropping the indoor vaccine mandate in the “coming weeks,” Ojikutu said.
Outlining those standards — hospital bed occupancy, daily hospitalizations, and the city’s positivity rate — was a focus of Ojikutu’s testimony.
“We spend a lot of time thinking about the data behind the decisions and behind the guidance that we have provided to this administration,” she told Baker.
The hearing came as Wu’s policy has been, at least temporarily, hampered by a Massachusetts Appeals Court judge who, last month, ordered a temporary stay on the mandate amid a legal challenge from three of the city’s first responders unions.
Several labor groups representing the city’s public workforce accused Wu’s administration of stepping on collective bargaining rights, forgoing earlier city policy that unvaccinated workers be tested for the virus regularly instead of losing their jobs.
The change, announced in December, came without conversation, union leaders said Friday. And many unions have made little to no progress in finding some sort of middle ground, they said.
Some implored city councilors to publicly side with unions.
“As of today, all of our attempts to settle the labor dispute have stalled. We have spent days and long hours at the Parkman House, working in tandem with our fellow unions,” John Soares, president of Boston Firefighters Local 718, said in his remarks on Friday. “Every time we make a proposal … to the Wu administration’s proposal, the city simply ignores us.”
Wu said on Sunday her administration met with police and fire unions last Friday for nine hours but was unable to reach a deal.
In those talks, Wu offered up a policy the groups rejected that would prevent unvaccinated current employees from being fired, but it also would have required them to be tested twice a week.
Under that version of the rule, unvaccinated employees would have to go on unpaid administrative leave if the pandemic escalated again to certain surge levels.
Further talks with several unions, including Local 718, stalled earlier this week when administration officials canceled a meeting, several labor leaders indicated in a letter to Wu on Wednesday.
Elissa Cadillic, president of the Boston Public Library Employees Union Local 1526, contrasted the mandate with the current rules at the city’s libraries, which allow patrons to enter regardless of vaccination status.
Why should city employees be held to a different standard than the public they serve, she asked.
Like other labor groups, Cadillic’s union has not had many of their questions and requests adequately addressed by the city, Cadillic said. Representatives were unable to give “concrete reasons” behind the policy change and were unable to provide data about COVID cases among unvaccinated employees, she said.
According to Cadillic, the Office of Human Resources shared names and email addresses of city employees who tested positive and who were unvaccinated, violating their privacy and an agreement reached in October.
“The city expects us to meet with them and trust that they will abide by mutually negotiated agreements now and in the future,” Cadillic said. “How can we do that when that trust has been eroded?”
Wu’s administration has so far been able to reach inroads with one labor group.
On Thursday, Wu announced the city struck a deal with the Boston Teacher’s Union.
The agreement, which still requires School Committee approval, allows unvaccinated school staff to submit two negative COVID tests per week when virus transmission is considered low. But when transmission rises, those staffers cannot enter school buildings and may take accrued time off instead of unpaid leave.
Councilor Erin Murphy, who called for Friday’s hearing, asked Ojikutu how the city plans to handle a potentially quick shift in the school workforce if the virus is in constant flux.
The data is published as seven-day averages, meaning changes like the one Murphy highlighted would be planned out, not on the fly, according to Ojikutu.
Council President Ed Flynn said despite the “difficult times” the city is facing, he still believes there could be a compromise if all parties go back to the bargaining table.
As the sun lowered later on Friday afternoon, a crowd of Local 718 members marched through City Hall Plaza, demanding action and carrying signs.
On one, bold letters proclaimed, “Mayor Wu burns firefighters.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the union led by Chris Stockbridge, which is AFSCME Local 1631.
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