NEW BEDFORD — The city’s 230 uniformed police officers will comply with the mandatory vaccine policy for municipal employees beginning next week, according to an agreement between the police union and Mayor Jon Mitchell.
The officers will join 882 other city workers who have been subject to the policy since Nov. 15, including the New Bedford Firefighters Union and members of AFSCME Local 851, who work across 24 city departments.
Negotiations between the city and the police union continued last month, even as the vaccine policy went into effect for members of New Bedford’s two other public sector unions, whose leaders signed nearly identical agreements in October. The Memorandum of Agreement between the city and the police union was signed Dec. 2.
New Bedford’s vaccine policy now extends to all 1,112 non-school city employees, completing the roadmap that Mayor Mitchell unveiled four months ago for city employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or provide weekly negative test results for the novel coronavirus. The requirements do not extend to employees of New Bedford Public Schools or the New Bedford Port Authority.
The city’s vaccine policy got off to a rocky start last month when about two-dozen employees demonstrated in front of City Hall for several days during the week of Nov. 15. City spokesperson Mike Lawrence said that as of Tuesday, 13 employees have requested religious exemptions from the policy’s vaccination or testing requirements, and their applications are under review.
The city policy provides an option for unvaccinated employees to continue working if they submit the results of a negative PCR test every week. Lawrence said the two options have proved effective at protecting city workers and residents in recent weeks.
“In the short time since its inception, the required COVID-19 testing has allowed managers to identify two COVID-positive employees and prevent them from entering their workplaces and potentially infecting colleagues,” Lawrence noted.
Out of the 882 city employees required to meet last month’s deadline, three remain noncompliant, Lawrence said. Two of them are employees at the Department of Public Infrastructure and one is a non-uniformed employee of the Police Department.
“The three employees have been denied entry to their workplaces, and, per the policy, their hours of missed work are being deducted from their accrued vacation or personal time,” Lawrence wrote in an email to The Light. “Continued non-compliance by the three employees will result in further disciplinary action, including possible termination.”
The city’s agreement with the police union doesn’t provide a timeline for officers to comply with vaccine requirements or face similar repercussions. But the policy for police is identical to the one for all city workers, and Lawrence said the Police Department will begin implementing it for uniformed employees next week.
Police Union President Hank Turgeon did not return multiple requests for comment about the vaccine policy or the agreement he signed last week.
Police Chief Paul Oliveira was not working today and also could not be reached. “The chief isn’t in today, so he is unable to provide a comment,” spokesperson Holly Huntoon wrote in an email.
Information about the New Bedford Police Department’s current vaccination rate was not available, Huntoon said Wednesday. But in November, she noted the department’s vaccination rate was about 55% — slightly higher than the rate for the city as a whole.
Mayor Mitchell touted the vaccine mandate as “one of the first in the nation” when he announced it last summer. An Aug. 6 notice describes the policy as part of the “proactive approach New Bedford has pursued since the beginning of the pandemic,” citing urgent factors like the increasing prevalence of COVID-19 in the region and the arrival of the Delta variant.
Last summer’s pressing concerns are now overshadowed by the pandemic’s resurgence this fall and the emergence of the Omicron variant.
Mitchell remains optimistic about the impact of the city’s vaccine policy and the example it sets for other employers in New Bedford. Talks are continuing this week between New Bedford Public School District officials and school employee unions.
“COVID-19 employee vaccination/testing policies are valuable tools for ensuring the safety of workers, customers, and the entire community,” Mitchell said in a statement to The Light. “I appreciate the city employees who have done their part to help ensure the health and safety of their colleagues and residents by complying with the policy.”
Email Abigail Nehring at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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