NEW BEDFORD — About 25 Department of Public Infrastructure workers demonstrated in front of City Hall for several hours Wednesday, objecting to the mayor’s mandate that city workers either get vaccinated or be subjected to weekly COVID-19 testing.
“It’s about taking away our freedom to make a choice. The vaccine should be a choice. Whatever I put into my body is my choice,” said one man holding a sign that said “No vaccine mandate” with a line through a syringe. The individual declined to give his name.
It was the only sign on display as most of the demonstrators simply milled around the sidewalk in front of City Hall’s front entrance on William Street. Drivers regularly leaned on their horns in support as they passed by on Sixth Street. Councilor-at-large Linda Morad, a regular critic of Mayor Jon Mitchell, joined the group, also offering her support.
Most of the employees wore the yellow vests common to DPI workers who labor on the city’s streets and roads. The demonstrators accounted for about 20% of New Bedford’s more than 150 DPI workers.
As of Monday, some 882 city workers, including those represented by Local 851 of AFSCME, were required to have demonstrated to the city that they were either vaccinated or had received a negative COVID-19 test within the past seven days. New Bedford is complying with the Biden administration’s order that all employers of more than 100 people require their workers to be vaccinated.
Mayor Jon Mitchell announced the policy in August and set the Nov. 15 deadline in October after concluding negotiations with two public employee unions. The agreement covers 337 members of AFSCME across 24 city departments and 207 New Bedford Fire Union members, as well as 338 city employees who are not part of a union.
The administration is attempting to put an end to the COVID pandemic, now in its 21st month on American soil. New Bedford, with a vaccination rate of roughly 50%, has lagged behind the state as a whole in vaccinations and suffered upticks in COVID and COVID-related deaths in late summer and early fall. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 761,000 Americans have died during the pandemic.
Some workers demonstrating Wednesday acknowledged that they themselves are vaccinated, and that their main objection is to the union’s leadership agreeing to the mandate without consulting them. AFSCME (which represents blue-collar and office workers) and the firefighters union have agreed to the terms of the mandate, while the unions representing police officers and teachers continue to negotiate.
“Today is based on more of the right to vote, and not so much being vaccinated,” said a worker from the Water Department, who did not want to be identified, but who said he himself is fully vaccinated. “The union did this back-door (deal) with the mayor, and we don’t think it’s right. We all should be able to vote as a union or what’s the point of having a union?”
The worker said members did not feel they could accept the way the mandate came about. “It’s the principle. Because if we let this go, what else are they going to do behind closed doors?” he said.
Maurice (Moe) Vezina, the Local 851 president, could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon. When contacted by phone, Eben Jordan, Local 851 vice president, offered no comment other than to say, “this is a polarizing topic.”
New Bedford Public Infrastructure Commissioner Jamie Ponte did not know how many of the department’s workers had been vaccinated, but he said the city made it available to workers, “and a lot of people took advantage of the opportunity to get the vaccine.” He estimated that roughly 30 employees called out on Monday and Tuesday. “Hopefully we can get back to normal soon,” Ponte said.
Kevin Sylvia, a foreman for the DPI Water Division, was back at work flushing hydrants in the streets of New Bedford Wednesday after calling out with about 30 other workers Monday and Tuesday.
“It’s not only the mandate that we’re trying to fight for,” he said. “It’s that the union didn’t bring it to our attention first. The vaccine is definitely an issue, too. We feel we shouldn’t be forced to get the vaccine or be singled out for testing.”
Sylvia works outdoors most days in a crew of three foremen.
“I am not vaccinated, and I don’t plan to get vaccinated,” he said. “I’ve been working throughout this whole pandemic. I never worked from home. I’ve had contact with positive people, and I got tested right away.”
The New Bedford Fire Union members were among the first city employees to be vaccinated when first responders became eligible early in the state vaccine rollout. Fire Union President Billy Sylvia said more than 80% of about 200 union members are currently vaccinated.
“We’re trying to adjust and see how it goes. Members who are vaccinated submitted their info to the city,” Sylvia said. “It’s a moving thing; it’s brand new, so it’s an adjustment.”
The city’s police union, which represents 230 members, was still negotiating with the city Wednesday and has not agreed to a vaccine mandate. Police Union President Hank Turgeon could not be reached for comment, but a spokesperson for the New Bedford Police Department said at least 55% of the department was vaccinated as of Wednesday.
“There are likely more people who got vaccinated on their own that we don’t know about, therefore we don’t have a definite number,” said Holly Huntoon, police media relations specialist.
Among the DPI employees at Wednesday’s City Hall protest, some objected to the fact that the city can still require an unvaccinated worker to work if it benefits the city, such as during an emergency when there is no one else to do the job.
“Not everybody got sent home, and that’s our biggest gripe right now,” said a woman who also declined to be identified. “That’s not fair to everybody.”
One employee said he was very concerned because workers were asked to sign a document about their compliance with the mandate. “They have you sign a paper, which is very alarming to me, as well as anybody else. We have concerns and we have questions,” he said.
Nobody he knows at DPI knew anything about the mandate, and that the union had made an agreement with the city. He said he is unvaccinated but believes he has antibodies that protect him because he survived COVID about two months ago.
When told that some health experts have said the vaccine offers additional antibody protection, he said a primary-care physician can judge whether one has enough antibodies without the vaccine. The man did not want to be identified.
Councilor Morad said she believes most of her colleagues on the council oppose the mayor’s mandate.
She said she, Council President Joe Lopes and Councilor Brian Gomes, successfully presented a petition to the City Council last week opposing the mandate and looking for other ways to address the reluctance of some workers to get the vaccine.
“It’s wrong,” she said. “But that’s what this administration does. It’s never been fair and equitable to the people who are in the streets doing the job, keeping the city working.”
Mike Lawrence, the mayor’s spokesperson, said city Human Resources staffers were still working Wednesday to tally the vaccination rate among all the city employees covered by the vaccine mandate. The mayor’s office has not yet released information about how many employees are in compliance with the policy overall.
Lawrence said the mayor was unavailable for comment as he was in Washington on Wednesday working on fishing and other issues. But he said the mandate is the result of a contract negotiated between the administration and the AFSCME union. “A lot of the questions or concerns from the workers are with the union,” he said.
Unvaccinated workers who do not get tested are allowed to use vacation, personal or compensatory time while they are not being paid, but not sick time, according to the AFSCME agreement with the city.
The city continues to process verifications for those who are uploading their verification, and department heads are working with their team members about how to comply with the mandate, Lawrence said.
He acknowledged that if individuals continue to resist complying it will eventually be grounds for termination.
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