A month before President Joe Biden announced his national vaccine mandate, fellow Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf imposed his own on the 25,000 employees of Pennsylvania’s prisons and state health care facilities. Get the vax or face weekly testing, Wolf ordered.
Now, the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA) is suing the Wolf administration over its mandate. They’ve also filed a labor grievance over the policy last week, charging the Wolf administration unilaterally implemented the policy and that took “discriminatory/disparate” actions that are creating unsafe working conditions.
“During the height of the pandemic, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) imposed restrictions on all prison volunteers, contractors, visitors, and inmates,” said PSCOA President John Eckenrode. “Not only have these restrictions been lifted as the highly contagious Delta variant spreads, but DOC is not applying the vaccination and testing requirement to those same individuals who were restricted last year. This, coupled with the administration’s inconsistent policies during the pandemic, has made work conditions dangerous for our members.”
The lawsuit is likely part of the opening salvo in a war that will be waged in courtrooms across the country as more vaccine mandates — Biden’s national one in particular — begin to take effect.
Last week an exasperated Biden told Americans who had yet to get vaccinated for COVID-19 that he was done waiting. “We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin. And your refusal has cost all of us.”
Biden then announced his sweeping COVID-19 vaccine mandates, including an order for all federal workers and contractors to get vaccinated or face losing their jobs. Biden also added a requirement that large private companies must mandate vaccines or regular testing for employees, though it’s not clear he has the legal authority to do so.
By early Friday morning, several Republican governors had announced their intentions to fight Biden’s mandate. The Republican National Committee said it was preparing lawsuits.
“Have at it,” was Biden’s response.
The issue is creating rifts in organized labor, both between leadership and the rank-and-file, as well as the organizations themselves.
The national AFL-CIO is on board with Biden’s mandates. “The resurgence of COVID-19 requires swift and immediate action, and we commend President Biden for taking additional steps to help put an end to this crisis. Everyone should be vaccinated—as one step in stopping the pandemic,” AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler said in a statement.
But the AFL-CIO affiliated American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), is speaking out in opposition.
“Since the vaccines first became widely available, we have strongly encouraged all our members to take one of the several safe, effective vaccines against COVID-19. The data are clear. Getting vaccinated isn’t just the best way for us to end this pandemic, it is the best way for us to protect each other in the workplace,” said AFGE/AFL-CIO National President Everett Kelley.
“Likewise, since President Biden made his first major announcement about changing COVID-19 protocols for the federal workforce in response to the surging Delta variant, we have said that changes like this should be negotiated with our bargaining units where appropriate. Put simply, workers deserve a voice in their working conditions.
“Neither of these positions has changed. We expect to bargain over this change prior to implementation, and we urge everyone who is able to get vaccinated as soon as they can do so.”
The Communications Workers of America released a similar statement: “CWA recommends that CWA members be vaccinated with an FDA approved vaccine to protect themselves, their families, their co-workers, and their communities…CWA supports voluntary vaccination programs and opposes mandatory vaccination as a condition of employment.”
Some rank-and-file union members, including those who’ve been vaccinated, are asking why their unions aren’t demanding this mandate go through the collective bargaining process.
While the mandate issue may be scrambling politics within the party, as a partisan issue it’s breaking down as expected.
Democratic Sen. Bob Casey supports the mandates: “I welcome the decision by the Biden administration to advance policies that will ensure health care providers are vaccinated and that we prevent any further unnecessary loss of life by curbing the spread of COVID-19.”
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey opposes it. “Private businesses have the legal authority to impose vaccine mandates on their customers and or employees if they see fit,” Toomey said. “But federal government mandates, of dubious legality, will further alienate the skeptical, undermine our institutions, and punish ordinary business owners and their employees.”