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Judge Hands Major Victory to City of Chicago Employees Who Refused the COVID Vaccine

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

The city of Chicago has been ordered to reinstate employees who were fired or faced disciplinary action for not complying with Mayor Lori Lightfoot's COVID-19 vaccine mandate and repay lost wages with interest, a state administrative law judge ruled. 

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The decision came after more than 20 unions representing city employees filed an unfair labor practices charge following the 2021 vaccine mandate. The case was brought before the Illinois Labor Relations Board. 

In a 78-page decision in combined cases brought by the Coalition of Unionized Public Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, Administrative Law Judge Anna Hamburg-Gal found that although the city had the right to implement a vaccine requirement for its employees, it was obligated to negotiate with the union over the effects of that policy.

The effects of the policy the city imposed included placing employees who didn’t report their vaccination status or refused to be vaccinated without a proper exemption on “no-pay status” and later terminating their employment, both of which should have been negotiated with the unions until reaching an agreement or an impasse, the administrative judge found.

Docking pay “is not an inevitable consequence of the vaccine mandate or reporting requirement because no-pay status is not the sole means by which the (city) could have enforced its policy,” Hamburg-Gal wrote.

Likewise, the city unilaterally changed the status quo in August of last year when it began terminating employees who hadn’t complied with the policy, electing “to pursue a far harsher approach than it had taken before against violators of its vaccination policy.”

“Although the policy on its face states that any violations of the policy could result in discipline up to and including termination, the (city) established a past practice of treating violations more leniently,” the judge wrote.

The judge ordered the city to reinstate the affected employees, with their personnel records expunged, and to compensate workers for any lost pay or benefits that resulted, with 7% interest. The unions should be allowed to negotiate to keep any parts of the policy they like, the judge said. (Chicago Tribune)

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“The ruling affirms that when an employer contemplates significant changes to terms of employment, it has a duty to bargain in good faith with the union,” AFSCME Council 31spokesman Anders Lindall said in a statement. “In this case, the city did not do that.”

While the case is is separate from the one brought by the city’s largest police union, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, union president John Catanzara praised the ruling.

"The hope is that the Labor Board ruling...is a citywide policy going forward," Catanzara said in a video message.

A spokesperson for Lightfoot called the decision "erroneous" and said the mayor's office is "evaluating next steps."

“[The] ruling was an erroneous decision that does not follow the law, facts nor importantly the science," Lightfoot spokesman Cesar Rodriguez said in a statement.

The city has 30 days to file an appeal with the Labor Board, which means the deadline comes days after Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson will have been sworn in. 

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky cheered on the ruling. 

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"Gotta love it when petty tyrants are given comeuppance," he said on Twitter.

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