A panel of state judges will likely decide this month the fate of Gov. Phil Murphy’s COVID vaccine mandate — including a booster shot — for those working in crowded, high-risk environments such as hospitals and prisons after a legal challenge from New Jersey’s largest police union.
Signed in January, Murphy’s executive order demands that workers — including corrections officers in county and state facilities — get their COVID-19 vaccinations and a booster shot or risk punishment and possible termination. The order also bars them from taking weekly tests as an alternative to getting vaccinated.
But the move has ranked the 33,000-strong New Jersey Policemen’s Benevolent Association, which filed for a restraining order that would grind Murphy’s mandate to a halt.
The union believes the governor has overreached by demanding that workers get a vaccine many don’t want and making rules for county employees instead of just state workers, said PBA attorney Frank Crivelli.
Several local labor leaders said they didn’t understand how the mandate would keep COVID out of jails when the easily transmissible omicron variant strikes the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.
Testing has been more effective at keeping the virus at bay, said Lt. Ricky Rosario, head of PBA 197’s Superior Officers Association in Passaic County.
But only the unvaccinated must take weekly tests. Rosario said this means the vaccinated guards — who don’t have to test — are more likely to come to work and spread it.
“You’re more dangerous to me than an unvaccinated person who’s testing every week,” Rosario said.
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John Welsh, who heads the union that represents 275 rank-and-file Passaic County corrections officers, agreed.
“It makes no sense at all,” said Welsh. “And even if we have to be vaccinated, why should the testing stop?”
Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik echoed the union’s position in an email sent to employees late last week, according to a spokesman. “I support any policy which allows intense COVID-19 testing, and does not mandate vaccinations of our employees,” Berdnik wrote.
While omicron has spread more easily to the vaccinated than other strains of COVID, the symptoms are often far less severe in the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated.
Vaccines and booster shots have proved to be very effective at battling the worst effects of COVID. A Hackensack Meridian survey released last month found that 68% of its COVID patients in intensive care and 74% on ventilators were unvaccinated. None of the 90 patients on ventilators had received a booster shot, according to hospital data.
A spokeswoman for the governor’s office declined to comment Thursday on the PBA’s challenge, which it filed on behalf of 28 locals throughout the state.
This includes PBA 197, which represents Passaic County corrections officers, and PBA 134, which represents about 275 Bergen County corrections officers.
The case is moving quickly. State and union representatives have until this Friday to file their briefs and replies.
Oral arguments, should the three-judge panel decide to hear them, are set for Feb. 7.
Crivelli, the attorney, said the court could strike down the entire order, the portion that applies to corrections officers or just the mandate that guards get a booster dose.
Should it stand, the COVID shot would be the first state-mandated vaccine for corrections officers, he said.
Mixed rulings from courts
It’s not clear whether the challenge will succeed, however.
Last month, the US Supreme Court blocked President Joseph Biden’s sweeping mandate that would have imposed vaccine-or-testing requirements on many large employers. But the Supreme Court also upheld the Biden administration rule that mandates vaccines for nearly all staff who work at hospitals, nursing homes and other health care institutions that receive federal money.
And locally, the courts have upheld more targeted mandates — such as Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s executive order demanding that city employees, including police, get vaccinated.
In response, the Newark Police Superior Officers’ Association filed an unfair labor practice charge against the city. But a state appellate court sided with the mayor in September, saying in its decision that the city “has the right to protect the public.”
The mandate has worked, according to a November opinion piece written by the city’s public safety director, Brian A. O’Hara, and published by NJ.com.
O’Hara wrote that 96% of the members of Newark’s Department of Public Safety either are vaccinated or cited a religious or medical exemption. That includes 159 police officers and 83 firefighters who got the vaccine as a direct result of Baraka’s order.
“Undoubtedly, that will help save lives, not only of our first responders but of their loved ones and our residents as well,” O’Hara wrote.
Murphy’s order demands that employees, contractors and anyone else who works in county and state correctional facilities get their first shot before Feb. 16 and submit proof of their up-to-date vaccinations by March 30.
In a statement accompanying the order, the governor blamed the coronavirus’s easily transmissible omicron variant for the changes.
“It is critically important that we slow the spread throughout our health care and congregate settings in order to protect our vulnerable populations and the staff that care for them,” the governor said.
Pat Colligan, head of the state PBA, worried that Murphy’s order will push out hundreds of corrections officers who would rather leave than get vaccinated. This would exacerbate a labor shortage that’s already forcing guards to work compulsory overtime in facilities throughout the state, he said.
“We have a terrible vaccination rate among corrections officers,” Colligan said, estimating that only about 40% had gotten the shot. “A lot of these guys are not going to get it. And they’re going to leave. They’re going to choose to get terminated.”
Jordan Kalendar, president of Bergen County’s PBA 134, said in a statement that the union believes officers should decide for themselves whether to get the vaccine, and that Murphy should not have unilaterally decided for them.
“We wish the governor would have left this up to collective bargaining,” Kalendar said. “But he didn’t. So we were left no choice but to join in the fight.”
Staff Writer Scott Fallon contributed to this story.
Steve Janoski covers law enforcement for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news about those who safeguard your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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