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Vaccine mandate for city workers is 'on the table' if COVID spikes among workforce

Radivoje Pavicic

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald announced plans to impose a vaccination mandate on 5,000 county workers this week, but Pittsburgh isn’t quite ready to follow suit — even as one of its own police officers died this week due to COVID-19.

“We encourage all of our employees to get vaccinated,” Mayor Bill Peduto told reporters Thursday. “We have been in contact with our law department over the policy of mandatory vaccination. It’s an action that we haven’t taken yet, but one that is on the table … should we see a spike.”

As reported by WESA last winter, the law permits employers to impose such requirements, and in recent months some of America’s largest companies have begun doing so. But such a step can be trickier in unionized workplaces, where terms and conditions of employment are determined by a contract and where changes often must be negotiated. (Labor leaders say Allegheny County's policy, for one, will require further discussion.)

For local governments, that means policies can vary between union and non-union employees, and between new hires and workers already on the payroll.

Pittsburgh requires vaccination for new workers, and it requires masks and regular testing for unvaccinated non-union workers. Public safety officials about 60 percent of its police department have been vaccinated. That rate trails that of other public-safety workers and the general population (though a side-by-side comparison is difficult because vaccination rates vary widely by age).  As of Friday, 68.8 percent of Pennsylvanians have been fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health.

The vaccination rate among police was highlighted by the death last weekend of 47-year-old city police officer Brian Rowland, who the city first said succumbed to “a brief illness”: It identified the illness as COVID-19 days later. In a statement, the city at the time said the precise cause of death was not identified initially due to “the wishes of [Rowland's] family to respect his personal and private health information.

“His death, now confirmed to be the result of complications from COVID-19, is hitting us all with enormous gravity,” the statement continued, “as it has the families and friends of the nearly 690,000 Americans who have died, and whose lives have been affected by the ravages of this virus.”

Peduto said Thursday that while the city does not have a mandate now, “if we see it spreading throughout any department, we would make it mandatory across the board.” The policy, he added, “would only change if we see it happening on a scale where the health of the employees was being directly affected.”

Nor is it clear how a change in leadership would change things if the virus persists into 2022. Ed Gainey, the Democratic nominee running for mayor this fall, said Thursday that while the city “should still encourage people to get vaccinated and wear masks, anything else should take collective bargaining agreements [with] the unions to ensure that their voices are heard.”

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Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.