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SJC says Mayor Wu’s COVID-19 employee vaccine mandate was legal. Here’s what to know. 3/31/2023 Christopher Gavin
Mayor Michelle Wu © Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff Mayor Michelle Wu

Mayor Michelle Wu‘s administration landed a legal victory Thursday as the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial overturned a lower court’s decision that blocked the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate from taking hold for certain city employees.

The SJC ruled state Appeals Court Judge Sabita Singh “abused her discretion” last year when she granted the preliminary injunction sought by three unions representing the city’s first responders, filings show.

“The [city’s] policy decision to amend the COVID-19 policy was based on concerns not only for the health of their employees, but also for the residents of the city, for whom the defendants were obligated to provide continued access to public safety services,” Supreme Judicial Court Associate Justice Elspeth Cypher wrote in the court’s opinion.

“The potential harm to the city and the public resulting from the spread of COVID-19 clearly outweighed the economic harm to the employees,” she added.

What the SJC said

The Boston Firefighters Union Local 718, the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society, and the Boston Police Superior Officers Federation first challenged Wu’s controversial policy, which the mayor unveiled in December 2021, early last year.

The unions argued the rule — requiring public employees to get at least one vaccine dose or otherwise be placed on unpaid leave — undermined their collective bargaining rights.

A Suffolk Superior Court judge initially ruled against the unions, offering the public health concerns were greater than the harm the unions claimed they would face as a result of the policy.

Still, amid the legal challenge, the city put off officially rolling out the policy.

Recently, the city reached agreements to drop the mandate with Boston Firefighters IAFF Local 718 and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society. Terms of the agreement included that both would drop their Department of Labor Relations complaints. The city was working on reaching a similar deal with the third union.

Singh sided with the unions on appeal, writing the policy would impose “substantial harm” to the unions compared to the “limited harm to the city and the public health interest.”

Singh wrote “the balance of harms” favors an injunction to maintain the status quo, and added the crux of her decision was based on the city’s responsibility to negotiate these kinds of issues with its employee unions, which it failed to do.

The SJC on Thursday, however, rejected the notion the policy required the city to follow collective bargaining procedures.

“Contrary to the decision of the single justice, [city officials] need not have bargained over the decision to amend the COVID-19 policy to remove COVID-19 testing as an alternative to vaccination,” the SJC’s decision reads. “Certain managerial decisions are exempted from collective bargaining obligations where such decisions, as a matter of public policy, must be reserved to the public employer’s discretion.”

What Mayor Wu said

Wu, in a statement, said the ruling made clear the city has the authority to act in the interest of public health.

“Our administration will always make decisions to protect the health and safety of our residents, workers, and community members,” Wu said. “Today’s court decision affirms that our policies were grounded in sound medical guidance and the public interest at a time of emergency, and it makes absolutely clear that the City of Boston had and continues to have full authority to act in the interest of public health and safety, both last winter and in the future.”

What the unions said

Boston Firefighters Local 718 President Sam Dillon said he respects the court’s decision, although the agreement his union signed with the city makes it a moot point.

“I respect the Court’s decision to lift the injunction however I do not see it having any impact on our Union and members given the agreement we reached with the City in February,” Dillion said in a statement. “I encourage everyone to focus on the facts. The Court’s decision confirmed the City’s obligation to impact bargain its decision and expressed optimism regarding our success in front of the Labor Board on that issue. Not one member of Local 718 has or will be, terminated due to the Covid-19 Vaccine Mandate. We will continue serving the citizens of Boston, as we did throughout the pandemic, with a focus on public safety rather than politics. We are glad to have this matter behind us.”

Patrick Bryant, the attorney representing the superior officers union, said the union respects but disagrees with the decision, according to the Boston Herald.

“Given that Mayor Wu’s administration never imposed the mandate against any employee and agreed to drop the mandate this month, the decision has the effect of being a footnote to our labor relations on this issue,” Bryant said.

What this means moving forward

With the agreement in place for at least two unions, Thursday’s decision does not necessarily change much, at least in the short term, according to the Herald.

However, how the ruling impacts other employees among the city’s 18,000 workers was unclear.

Officials have said they are taking another look at the mandate, the newspaper reports. Union leaders have indicated though they’ve been told the rule won’t take hold.

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