New York City will require city workers to be vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced.
De Blasio cited the danger and lethality of the rapidly spreading Delta variant in announcing the mandate, which will apply to roughly 340,000 city workers. That includes the city's teachers and its police officers.
Renee Campion, commissioner at the New York City Office of Labor Relations, said if employees refuse to comply, they will be put on leave without pay.
Monday's decision makes New York the largest city in the nation to take such a step. The mayor said the announcement was part of what will be an intense vaccination effort in the lead-up to the start of the school year.
"We're leading by example," de Blasio said, noting that he hopes the city's stance will push private employers to follow. "Right now there are employers ready to act, who will take heart from our announcement."
In New York City, some 71% of adults have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Information on the vaccination rate among city workers is incomplete, but it is thought to be similar to the overall rate for adults.
Part of the goal of the new mandate is to "lift all boats" by creating a higher standard, said New York City Health Commissioner Dave Chokshi.
City workers who are unvaccinated must wear a mask when indoors at work, de Blasio said, adding that workers who don't will be removed from the workforce.
De Blasio said the city is in talks with various worker unions, but that the city has the right as an employer to take urgent actions to protect the health and safety of workers in the middle of a global pandemic.
Campion said that under the New York City collective bargaining law, the city does have to negotiate with unions regarding the safety impacts of these policies.
"It's quite clear the Delta variant has changed the game. Now it's time to focus on one thing and one thing only — vaccination. No more excuses, no more delays," de Blasio said. "Our goal here is simple: make it maximally easy for people to get vaccinated and create an atmosphere where there's clearly consequences if you don't get vaccinated. Because vaccination is the only answer at this point."
New York City is far from the first employer to require employees to be vaccinated.
When the Houston Methodist Hospital system in Texas announced it would require all of its employees to be vaccinated, more than 100 staff members filed a lawsuit against the hospital. The system's CEO noted that Houston Methodist had been among the first hospital systems to mandate employees get the flu vaccine, back in 2009.
A federal judge threw out the employees' lawsuit, saying the requirement broke no federal law. "Methodist is trying to do their business of saving lives without giving them the COVID-19 virus. It is a choice made to keep staff, patients, and their families safer," wrote U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes.
After that, more than 150 employees at the hospital system who refused to get vaccinated either resigned or were fired.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has issued guidance stating that employers have the legal right to require COVID-19 vaccination for all employees physically entering the workplace. In some circumstances, employers must provide reasonable accommodations for those with disabilities or religious objections.
Many long-term care operators have begun mandating that their workers get immunized to keep their jobs, and several universities have also mandated that staff get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Other employers are sticking with incentives to try to get employees vaccinated.
Meanwhile, according to the National Academy for State Health policy, governors in five states have signed legislation barring businesses from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations as a condition of work.