Baltimore employees will be required to get a coronavirus vaccine or face weekly testing for COVID-19, city officials announced Tuesday.
The new rules, which will become effective Oct. 18, require the city’s 14,000-strong workforce to report their vaccination status to city human resources officials. Employees must be fully vaccinated — meaning they have received both doses of the two dose Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Also two weeks must have elapsed since those shots.
Those who do not get vaccinated will need to get tested for the coronavirus weekly at one of 21 sites the city is setting up for employee testing, according to City Administrator Chris Shorter. Failure to submit a vaccination status to the city will result in discipline and possible termination, according to a note circulated to city staff early Tuesday.
With city leaders encouraging residents to get the vaccine, they thought they should require employees to do so as well, Shorter said.
City officials signaled two weeks ago during a Baltimore City Council hearing that they were considering a vaccination policy. Since then, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted full approval for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for those 16 and older.
Shorter credited the FDA approval with making the new requirement possible.
“A vaccination that is on emergency approval is very different,” he said. “We are happy to have an approved vaccine we’re mandating for our workforce.”
When the requirement becomes effective, Baltimore will join neighboring Anne Arundel County in requiring the vaccinations of employees. Anne Arundel County Executive Steuart Pittman announced earlier this month that vaccinations will be required as of Sept. 13 for county employees. Otherwise they are subject to weekly coronavirus testing.
School systems in Howard and Baltimore counties and the city of Annapolis have adopted similar requirements. Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has required some state and private health care workers to prove they’re vaccinated or submit to testing.
The new requirement in Baltimore comes as a first wave of employees who have been working from home during much of the pandemic begin to return to work. Staff who have returned so far provide “priority” services such as operating the city’s bill-paying windows at the Abel Wolman Municipal Building.
Another wave of employees who provide additional “resident-facing” services are due to return Oct. 24.
Baltimore officials may face pushback to the mandate from city labor leaders, however. Some indicated earlier this month that they believe mandatory vaccination must be bargained for based upon existing union contracts with employees.
Mayor Brandon Scott said previously that he did not believe such a requirement needed to be bargained.
In a joint statement released Tuesday, leaders of the two locals representing the city’s firefighters as well as the Fraternal Order of Police, said they have not yet been provided with a written copy of the vaccination policy.
“It is our desire to remain engaged in collective bargaining over the implementation of this policy,” the union leaders’ statement said. “We look forward to working amicably with members of Mayor Scott’s Administration to ensure this policy and its associated procedures are implemented fairly and equitably while respecting our member’s personal concerns and autonomy.”
Representatives from both city firefighter locals said previously that they oppose mandatory vaccinations.
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A poll of the city’s fire officers showed “an overwhelming margin” oppose mandatory vaccinations, according to a letter sent to Scott earlier in the month.
“Any policy that would mandate vaccinations among our membership would be a substantial material change in working conditions. As such, it would be subject to collective bargaining between the City and our local,” wrote Joshua Fannon, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 964 – Baltimore Fire Officers.
Shorter said this week that the effective date was set for mid-October in part to accommodate so-called “effects bargaining,” which is conducted when a business has the ability to take an action, but the impact will be significant.
The delay also will allow city officials to get testing sites up and running, he said.
Until now, it has been unclear exactly where the vaccination rate stands among city employees. Existing counts come from employees who have self-reported. Health Commissioner Letitia Dzirasa said earlier this month about 60% of city employees are believed to be vaccinated.
Exceptions may be made for city employees who have medical conditions preventing them from receiving the vaccine and people with a “sincerely held religious belief that prohibits them from receiving a vaccine,” according to the city’s memo to employees.
Baltimore has experienced problems with maintaining city services, particularly earlier in the pandemic, due to coronavirus cases among city employees. Curbside recycling was suspended for months after an outbreak of the virus sickened at least a dozen city sanitation employees and caused many more to quarantine. Large item pickup service still has not been restored.