Judge temporarily halts St. Paul's vaccine mandate for city employees

23December 2021

A judge on Thursday ordered St. Paul to stop enforcing an employee vaccine requirement while litigation over the mandate continues.

Ramsey County District Court Judge Robert Awsumb issued a temporary restraining order “to preserve the status quo” until questions related to state labor laws raised in lawsuits filed by the St. Paul Police Federation and Firefighters Local 21 can be decided, he wrote.

In late October, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carterannounced that the city’s nearly 4,000 employees would be required to get vaccinated by the end of the year. The city is not offering a testing alternative, meaning workers refusing to get the shots face termination unless they are granted a religious or medical exemption.

In late November and early December, the St. Paul police and fire unions filed complaints in court arguing the city violated state labor laws and their collective bargaining agreements by failing to negotiate the terms of the vaccine policy.

“The issue before the Court is not whether vaccines are harmful or beneficial,” Awsumb wrote. “The Court must consider whether allowing the implementation of the vaccine mandate before resolution of the important legal issue involved could result in irreparable harm to an employee coerced into complying to maintain their livelihood.”

The judge encouraged the unions and the city to negotiate the policy or consider submitting the dispute to a third-party arbitrator, who could issue a binding decision on the mandate’s legality.

Awsumb also said the court would establish an “accelerated procedure to allow for prompt determination of the issue” after the city argued its vaccine policy is an urgent attempt to protect public health. He scheduled a Jan. 20 hearing to address the status of negotiations.

“The issues aren’t complicated here,” said Chris Wachtler, an attorney representing the fire union. “What we’ve wanted from the beginning is a testing option. If the city is willing to give us that or discuss it, there’s fertile ground for resolution.”

A spokesperson for Carter did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

St. Paul Police Federation President Mark Ross said some of his members have still not heard whether the city will grant their exemption requests.

“The extended timelines are a great benefit to the folks who are kind-of in limbo,” he said. “I think the best possible scenario is we come together and we sit down and we negotiate a solution that works for everybody and does what it’s supposed to do — which is to keep people safe and prevent the spread of COVID.”

Awsumb is considering a separate request for a temporary restraining order from a group representing some St. Paul parks and public works union employees. Unlike police officers and firefighters, those workers have the right to strike if negotiations fail.

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