Local Politics

Raleigh police officers, firefighters threaten to sue over city's vaccination rules

Posted October 14, 2021 11:59 a.m. EDT
Updated October 14, 2021 5:43 p.m. EDT

— A group of Raleigh city employees, including dozens of police officers and firefighters, have hired a lawyer and are threatening to sue the city over its coronavirus vaccine regulations.

The group, called City of Raleigh Freedom to Choose, calls a bar to promotion and weekly testing for unvaccinated employees, as well as cash bonuses and extra days off for those who get their shots as evidence Raleigh is "actively discriminating against unvaccinated city employees while privileging other employees."

Raleigh has about 4,000 city employees, and about 78 percent have been vaccinated.

The city offered incentives of $250 and two extra vacation days to encourage workers to get their shots, but that ended for most last month. The city set a Sept. 17 deadline for workers to be vaccinated if they wanted to be promoted in the future.

Public safety workers, including police officers and firefighters, have until Dec. 31 to be vaccinated or be shut out of promotions.

"CRFC supports the right of city employees to make their own informed medical treatment choices, including the decision as to whether to get vaccinated against COVID-19. CRFC is not 'anti-vax,'" attorney James Lawrence wrote in an Oct. 11 letter to Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin. "What our clients oppose are top-down mandates, coercion and control."

The no-promotions rule for unvaccinated workers isn't set out in any city policy and violates Raleigh's own nondiscrimination ordinances, Lawrence argued in the letter.

"The mandate at issue here appears to have been instituted by city leadership fiat," he wrote. "We are not aware that the Civil Service Commission ever reviewed or that the City Council ever voted on it. As a result, our clients did not get an opportunity to comment on the mandate at a public meeting. The council did not have an opportunity to debate its merits. Simply put, democracy did not happen."

Baldwin couldn't be reached Thursday for comment.

Lawrence also argued that the rules discriminate against city workers who obtained a religious exemption from vaccination because they aren't eligible for the $250 bonus or the added vacation days. Meanwhile, he said, not paying unvaccinated workers for the time they spend getting weekly tests violates federal labor laws.

In addition, he noted in the letter, the city's rules give unvaccinated workers up to five weeks of skipping tests, during which they would face "progressive discipline" before possible termination. Yet, officials assume the workers will be on the job throughout that period, putting themselves and others at risk of infection.

"A fundamental rethinking of this entire policy would be in order," Lawrence said in an interview with WRAL News.

"Our clients went into public service to care for and protect the people of Raleigh. They do not want to litigate against the city, but unless the mandate is lifted, our clients will be faced with no other choice but to ask a court to uphold their rights," the letter to the mayor concludes.

Raleigh is likely to lose dedicated public servants over the vaccination rules, Lawrence said.

"We want our best people here. We don’t want to lose them to other, competing jurisdictions," he said.

Our commenting policy has changed. If you would like to comment, please share on social media using the icons below and comment there.