St. Paul firefighters join cops in suing over Carter’s vaccine mandate

Good luck if you experience a heart attack, house fire or get robbed at gunpoint in St. Paul soon. Unless something changes before the end of this month, it’s one of the last places you want to be in the event of an emergency. The police and fire unions estimate the city could have an estimated 100 fewer police officers and 75 fewer firefighters and EMTs on duty for refusing to comply with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s year-end vaccine mandate for municipal employees.

That possibility has prompted the firefighters’ union to follow the police federation in going to court in a last-ditch effort to spare city residents a needless threat to their safety, according to the Pioneer Press.

The city didn’t negotiate with the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 21 before making “a unilateral change to the terms and conditions” of employment for Local 21 members, the lawsuit says.

Mayor Melvin Carter announced on Oct. 21 the vaccine mandate for the nearly 4,000 employees of the city. The vaccination policy says workers “will not be permitted to work and may be subject to discipline” if they aren’t vaccinated by Dec. 31. People may qualify for a religious exemption or an accommodation due to a medical condition or recent treatment for COVID-19, the policy states.

The firefighters also followed the police union’s lead in seeking a temporary restraining order to allow time for negotiations. But so far city hall remains largely aloof.

A “significant percentage” of firefighters “have expressed … personal, moral, religious and/or medical objections to receiving a vaccination,” according to an affidavit from Mike Smith, Local 21 president. He and the police union estimated last week that 20 percent of their members weren’t vaccinated. The fire department’s authorized strength is 435. The city’s firefighters also serve as emergency medical technicians or paramedics.

Numerous firefighters submitted exemptions over two weeks ago and haven’t received responses from the city, said Smith, who noted “the deadline is fast approaching” under the city’s current policy. The city’s human resources department “continues to process attestations, and exemption requests as we work toward our requirement date,” said Peter Leggett, Carter’s communications director.

Residents may get a clue as to where Carter’s standoff with police and firefighters is headed at a court hearing for the cops next Wednesday. But for now, the ability to respond to the safety needs of St. Paul residents next year appears to be less of a priority for the mayor than his power play with the city’s public safety unions.