Judge temporarily blocks December vax mandate for Chicago police, says unions must negotiate rule with city

A judge has ordered the city of Chicago to halt enforcement of an upcoming vaccine mandate for police officers, ruling that local officials must resolve the issue through arbitration with law enforcement unions.

Judge Raymond Mitchell of the Cook County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the Fraternal Order of Police in Chicago (FOP) on Monday, saying the city cannot enforce the vaccine requirement until it bargains with police unions, including the FOP and others representing sergeants, lieutenants and captains (all three of which are also co-plaintiffs on the suit).

“The effect of this order is to send these parties back to the bargaining table and to promote labor peace by allowing them to pursue the remedies provided for in the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act,” Mitchell wrote in his six-page ruling, referring to legislation that governs collective negotiations between unions and public employers.

The judge also argued that, given the requirements under the state’s labor laws, enforcing the mandate ahead of arbitration would leave no possible remedy for objecting officers, as they cannot ‘unvaccinate’ themselves after receiving the jab, saying this “constitutes irreparable injury.”

An award of back pay or reinstatement cannot undo a vaccine. Nothing can.

Originally announced in August, Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s vaccine mandate required city employees to report their vaccination status by October 15, and compels them to become fully immunized by December 31. Though the mandate survived a separate legal challenge last month, Chicago’s police unions have continued to oppose the move, insisting it interferes with their right to collective bargaining – with some officers even organizing public rallies against the requirement.

Responding to the decision later on Monday, FOP head John Catanzara called it a “small victory,” cautioning that “it’s not time to spike the football or end zone dance at this point.” 

“Thankfully, Judge Mitchell heard our argument that we’ve been saying all along: This fight was about collective bargaining rights,” he said.

While Monday’s ruling put a pause on the December 31 deadline, it did not block the reporting requirement, meaning officers could still be sent home without pay for failing to hand over their vaccination records. Mitchell deemed the reporting obligation “a minimal intrusion” since “police officers are already obligated to provide medical information to their employer.” 

Officers must also continue to test for Covid-19 twice a week under Mitchell’s ruling.

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The mayor, for her part, insisted that “the mandate continues” during an unrelated press conference on Monday. She said that while her office is reviewing Mitchell’s ruling and looking at “legal options,” all similar attempts to block vaccine requirements elsewhere have failed.

“If you look at what's happening in court cases all across the country, whether it's fire and police or others that are challenging these mandates, I'm not aware of a single instance in which a mandate put in place has been invalidated,” Lightfoot said, adding that the city had negotiated with the unions in good faith, but that “We can not afford to wait any longer to save people's lives.”

Should the vaccine mandate go to union arbitration, it is unclear what the outcome could be, or whether the FOP or its partner unions could invalidate the requirement for all members, the entire Chicago Police Department, or individual officers only. Martin Malin, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and an appointee on a federal labor panel, described the case as “uncharted territory,” telling the Chicago Tribune that its outcome is still “anybody’s guess.” 

In a series of YouTube videos posted since August, FOP head Catanzara has urged union members to defy the vaccine mandate. While he was temporarily barred from publicly encouraging non-compliance through a restraining order, the prohibition expired last week. The mayor has sharply criticized Catanzara, including on Monday, saying his predictions that the mandate would be struck down in court would not come to fruition, and that this would only encourage compliance among officers.

A total of 32 officers in the city had been placed on leave with no pay for failing to report their vaccine status before the October 15 deadline, according to a court filing from last week obtained by the Tribune. Five of those officers have since complied, but the department as a whole continues to see some resistance to the orders, with only 73% of its workforce reporting their immunization status as of Monday.

Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown took a neutral stance during a Monday press conference, refusing to comment on who “wins or loses as far as the judge’s ruling [goes].” He nonetheless added that the department will “proceed with our protocol to get officers in the portal and to ensure that if they're not vaccinated that we make the case that vaccination saves lives and/or testing twice a week.”

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