Judge puts vaccine mandate on hold for St. Paul city employees

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A Ramsey County Judge has temporarily blocked a mandate requiring all city employees in St. Paul to be vaccinated against COVID-19 after the unions representing the police and fire departments filed lawsuits.

Employees would have had to complete their vaccination series by Dec. 31 and show proof of vaccine by Jan. 14 unless a judge stepped in. On Wednesday, District Court Judge Robert Awsumb granted requests for a temporary restraining order from the St. Paul Police Federation and the International Association of Firefighters Local 21.

In their lawsuits, the unions argued the city could not enforce the vaccine mandate because it was not part of their collective bargaining agreements, which set the terms and conditions for most full-time employees.

Awsumb told the city and the unions to keep negotiating or consider submitting the dispute to binding interest arbitration to attempt to settle the matter out of court. One sticking point was St. Paul’s lack of a testing option, something other cities with similar mandates have allowed.

Outside of court documents, Mark Ross, St. Paul Police Federation President argued that enforcing a vaccine mandate — and causing some police officers to quit or lose their jobs — could cause further issues for a police department that is already 80 officers below its recommended staffing level.

"We would be less safe if we lose officers to this mandate than allowing a small percentage to adapt to a robust vaccine mandate policy that allows testing," Ross said. "By no means are we against vaccines… What we’re trying to do is get the best possible vaccine mandate policy in place that literally works for everybody."

Per Awsumb’s ruling, the restraining order will remain in effect pending further court proceedings.

The two sides are set to reconvene in court on Jan. 20 to address the status of negotiations.

Mike Smith, the President of Local 21, issued the following statement regarding the judge’s decision:

"We are pleased with the judge’s decision. We are not anti-vaccination. This is a direct result of the city’s failure to provide consistent guidance and information we needed to take action on behalf of our members. The judge has suggested that we return to the negotiating table, which we are willing to do. If the city is willing to discuss the testing option, there is fertile ground for resolution."

So far, the City of St. Paul employees have submitted nearly 250 requests for medical or religious exemptions, but the city will now postpone processing requests pending the final outcome of the litigation.

Mayor Melvin Carter declined a request for an interview on Thursday, but a city spokesperson emailed a statement to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.

"COVID-19 is the leading cause of death among police officers and firefighters," said Communications Director Peter Legett. "We will do everything we can to protect them, their families, and the public we serve."