Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration is offering to soften its employee coronavirus vaccine mandate, potentially swapping in twice-a-week testing rather than the hard jab requirement during times when the pandemic eases up — though the full COVID-19 vaccine requirement would kick back in during a surge, according to draft copies of a proposed labor agreement obtained by the Herald.
According to the copies of the draft — which remained fluid and hadn’t been agreed upon in any final form as the sun set on Friday — the city would allow unvaccinated members of unions who sign the agreement to test out of the mandate when three specific pandemic-related metrics are at low enough levels: daily hospitalizations, community test positivity rate and ICU occupancy.
The city would put thresholds at 5% positive test rate in the city, 200 adult patients on average per day in Boston hospitals with COVID-19 and 95% of all intensive-care beds filled in the Hub, according to the draft copies, which are of a template not specific to any of the unions.
Right now, these metrics have been rapidly falling in Boston as the omicron-variant-driven surge recedes, but as of the start of this week the positive test rate and daily hospitalizations were more than double this agreement’s thresholds, though the ICU metric was lower than the delineated mark.
The proposed agreement says that the Boston Public Health Commission is to use those metrics as a “framework” week-by-week for deciding the “COVID-19 context,” with latitude also to consider “other public health-relevant factors.” Based on all that, BPHC ultimately would make the call each week on whether the pandemic is severe enough to require the full vaccine mandate to kick in.
When the virus surges and the BPHC deems the local “context” is severe enough, every city employee would be required to get the vaccine or face unpaid leave unless they are granted a medical or religious exemption. Employees could use vacation time to get pay for these days off as they wait for the surge to die down.
But when the metrics drop below the laid-out marks and the BPHC determines that pandemic levels are not too severe, unvaccinated members of the unions that sign this agreement could remain on the job by providing two weekly tests. That’s similar to the arrangement this past fall, when unvaccinated employees could provide one negative test a week to remain in compliance if they didn’t want to get the shot.
Under this proposal, unions would agree not to file grievances over enforcement of the mandate. The draft does not mention booster shots.
Future hirees would have to get vaccinated in order to come aboard, so all of this would only end up applying to the 5% of the city’s current workforce that’s unvaccinated.
Several of the unions and non-labor groups of first responders have fought Wu’s new vaccine mandate tooth and nail. Enforcement is currently on pause as the state appeals court reads through filings in a lawsuit on the matter. Protestors have shown up at Wu’s house many mornings and followed her to public events to let their displease about the mandate be known.
Wu called in various city-employee labor leaders, including those from police and firefighting groups, to the Francis Parkman House downtown Thursday to try to hammer out agreements with her team, according to the city. Meetings Friday started at noon and continued into the evening, as bargaining continued.
Wu administration did settle on a proposed agreement with the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association two weeks ago, the only agreement with any of the labor groups.
But members of the BPPA, which wasn’t one of the unions that sued, obliterated the agreement last week in a landslide vote. That proposal did not have the flexibility around the levels of coronavirus in the city, but it had several portions that this one does not, including giving each of the members of the city’s largest cop union two one-time mental-health days off this year, plus some protections or rehiring and the ability to further bargain over booster shots.
Nearly all of the 900 members who voted — a bit over half of the membership — gave it the thumbs down.