In Brief

Newark ordered to negotiate vaccine mandate provisions with unions

By: - September 2, 2021 7:00 am

The Newark order requires all municipal workers submit proof showing they completed their vaccine regiment and allows those who can’t to submit proof of receiving a single dose. (Photo by New Jersey Monitor)

Newark is permitted to mandate its employees get vaccinated against COVID-19, but the city must negotiate portions of the order with unions that filed to block the directive, per a Public Employment Relations Commission decision released Wednesday.

The decision is a partial win for police and firefighter unions, who along with other Newark municipal worker unions petitioned PERC in August to overturn the vaccine mandate enacted through Mayor Ras Baraka’s Aug. 10 executive order. The unions argued the order violates provisions of the New Jersey Employer-Employee Relations Act.

Wednesday’s PERC decision came two days after the agency allowed Wayne to keep its vaccine mandate but ordered it to negotiate some of its provisions. Wayne’s mandate, like the one enacted in Newark, provided for medical and religious exemptions to vaccination.

The commission’s rulings aren’t likely to stop local governments from enacting mandates, but it might make them more circumspect, said Frank Marshall, associate general counsel for the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

“I don’t think it’s going to prevent anyone from pushing forward if they were so inclined to have a mandate,” he said. “But it’s definitely going to delay it a little bit because it’s much easier to come to negotiated terms than to fight it out in a PERC setting or in the courts.”

The Newark order requires all municipal workers submit proof showing they completed their vaccine regiment and allows those who can’t to submit proof of receiving a single dose. Workers who are not fully inoculated are required to get tested for COVID-19 weekly and submit their negative result to the city.

Under the order, employees who do not comply will be hit with loss of pay and other penalties, termination included.

Those portions of the order received a skeptical reception from PERC.

Jonathan Roth, director of PERC’s unfair practices and representation staff, ruled the discipline provisions are terms of employment that must be negotiated, as are provisions on testing and the executive order’s general timeframe.

Roth’s interim relief order doesn’t end the dispute between Newark and the unions. Their case will now return to the regular tract and could be overturned later.

Vaccine mandates have grown in popularity amid the latest surge of COVID-19. Daily case counts numbered above 1,000 for most of August. Almost all of those cases were traced back to the highly transmissible Delta variant.

The commission noted that variant had fueled a hospitalization surge in Newark that could be “overwhelmingly attributed to unvaccinated people.”

While mandates imposed at the state level have seen little in the way of challenges — Gov. Phil Murphy and leaders from various unions negotiated before a mandate was issued in most cases — the same isn’t true at the local level.

 

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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