NYC judge tells city to rehire workers fired for refusing vaccination

A health-care worker directs a man who was just vaccinated at a clinic in Manhattan in December 2021. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

A group of sanitation workers who were fired for refusing to comply with New York City's coronavirus vaccine mandate for government employees should be given back their jobs, as well as retroactive pay, a New York state judge ruled.

The city's requirement for government workers to be vaccinated was "arbitrary and capricious," state Supreme Court Justice Ralph Porzio, a Republican whose jurisdiction includes the conservative stronghold of Staten Island, wrote in an order filed Tuesday. The city has appealed the decision; New York's Supreme Court is a trial-level court and its decisions are subject to review by higher appellate courts.

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City employees were required to show proof of at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine before November 2021, amid worries that winter would hasten the spread of the virus. The sanitation workers were terminated in February this year. A mandate for public-facing employees of private companies also went into effect in December 2021, but was amended to include exemptions for performers and athletes after sharp criticism.

Porzio highlighted the exceptions, writing that if the mandates were "about safety and public health, no one would be exempt." He said that while the health commissioner had the authority to issue public health mandates, the commissioner "cannot create a new condition of employment for City employees," nor can the public health authority "prohibit an employee from reporting to work" or terminate an employee.

Mayor Eric Adams (D) announced last month that the city was dropping the mandate for private employees as of Nov. 1. He said at the time that ending the mandate for government workers was "not on the radar for us." (Porzio wrote in his ruling that the mayor "cannot exempt certain employees from these orders.")

A spokesman for the New York City Law Department said in a statement that the city "strongly disagrees with this ruling as the mandate is firmly grounded in law and is critical to New Yorkers' public health."

He added that the mandate, which was put in place by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), would stay in place "as this ruling pertains solely to the individual petitioners in this case." In announcing the mandate, de Blasio said that the "privilege" of serving New Yorkers as a public employee "comes with a responsibility to keep yourself and your community safe."

Adams' office told the local news publication City & State New York last month that 1,761 city employees had been fired due to noncompliance with the mandate. More than 1,400 of those were terminated in February, when Adams said that the workers were "quitting" and not being terminated, because it was a "decision" not to get vaccinated.

Porzio said his order was "not a commentary on the efficacy of vaccination, but about how we are treating our first responders."

"Though vaccination should be encouraged, public employees should not have been terminated for their noncompliance," Porzio wrote.

Lee Zeldin, the Republican nominee for governor of New York, said at a debate on Tuesday evening that anyone terminated due to a state requirement for health care workers to be vaccinated should be "offered their jobs back, with back pay." He also criticized "special celebrity exemptions," in a reference to the athlete exceptions, although those were from the city's mandate.

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