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Arbitrator rules city must offer non-classroom work to teachers with Covid vaccination medical/religious exemptions

Office or remote assignments must be available for vaccinated teachers with suppressed immune systems
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Arbitration finding also calls for unpaid leaves with health coverage, along with severance arrangements

An independent arbitrator has ruled that New York City teachers with certain documented medical conditions must be offered non-classroom assignments. Other staffers reluctant to take the vaccine must be offered either an unpaid leave that maintains their health coverage, or a severance package.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said, “As a group, teachers have overwhelmingly supported the vaccine, but we have members with medical conditions or other reasons for declining vaccination. After our demand for independent arbitration, the city backed off its initial position that all unvaccinated personnel be removed from payroll, and will offer out-of-classroom work for those with certified medical or other conditions.”

“The city has also agreed — based on the arbitrator’s determination — to create both a leave process and a severance agreement for other teachers who feel that they cannot comply with the vaccination mandate.”

The teacher vaccine mandate is scheduled to go into effect on Sept. 27, 2021. Classes begin Monday, Sept. 13.

The UFT estimates that more than 80% of teachers have already been vaccinated, either through the union’s own vaccination program or through other city and state initiatives.

Medical exemptions

Under the terms of the arbitrator’s ruling, teachers and other staff with certain medical conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated, either temporarily or permanently, including certain cancer treatments, must be offered educational and administrative work in non-classroom buildings.

In cases where teachers seek exemptions for medical conditions not on the list, independent arbitrators will decide if the exemption is appropriate.

Teachers who have been vaccinated but whose immune systems are suppressed must also be offered office or remote assignments as long as their medical conditions last.

Religious exemptions

Exemption requests shall be considered for recognized and established religious organizations and not where the objection is personal, political, or philosophical in nature. Applications for religious exemptions must be documented in writing by clergy or a religious official. Appeals of religious exemption denials will be heard by the same independent arbitrators ruling on medical exemption appeals.

Unpaid leaves

Teachers who are not vaccinated but for whom medical exemptions are unavailable must be offered unpaid leaves that will last until next September. While their salaries will be withheld, the city will continue their medical insurance coverage.

Such teachers will be returned to their jobs and the payroll if and when they decide to be vaccinated. If they have not been vaccinated by the end of that leave, the system will assume they have resigned.

Severance

Staff who decline to accept an unpaid leave must be offered a severance package that would include payment for unused sick days, along with health insurance until the end of the school year. They would also be entitled to apply to return to city schools in the future.

Unvaccinated teachers who refuse all options will be subject to the disciplinary process.

Arbitration and the legal process

Arbitration is a process outside of the court system that is used to resolve differences between parties, often over contract interpretation — in this case a dispute between the UFT and the city over the impact of the Health Department’s vaccine mandate on the work of teachers and other staff members.

The arbitration finding does not resolve the underlying issue of whether the city has the legal authority to issue such a mandate for teachers and other city workers. The question of the city’s legal authority can only be resolved by the courts. The Municipal Labor Committee, of which the UFT is a member, has brought a suit in Manhattan Supreme Court to resolve that issue.

The arbitration was conducted by Martin F. Scheinman, of Scheinman Arbitration and Mediation Services. Read the arbitration decision »