A judge on Thursday ordered St. Paul to stop enforcing a vaccine requirement for some city employees while litigation over the mandate continues.
Ramsey County District Court Judge Robert Awsumb issued a temporary restraining order "to preserve the status quo" until questions related to state labor laws raised in lawsuits filed by the St. Paul Police Federation and Firefighters Local 21 can be decided, he wrote.
Peter Leggett, communications director for Mayor Melvin Carter, said St. Paul will postpone enforcement of the vaccine requirement for all city workers in light of the decision.
In late October, Carter announced that the city's nearly 4,000 employees would be required to get vaccinated by the end of the year. The city is not offering a testing alternative, meaning workers refusing to get the shots face termination unless they are granted a religious or medical exemption.
In late November and early December, the St. Paul police and fire unions filed complaints in court arguing the city violated state labor laws and their collective bargaining agreements by failing to negotiate the terms of the vaccine policy.
"The issue before the Court is not whether vaccines are harmful or beneficial," Awsumb wrote. "The Court must consider whether allowing the implementation of the vaccine mandate before resolution of the important legal issue involved could result in irreparable harm to an employee coerced into complying to maintain their livelihood."
The judge encouraged the unions and the city to negotiate the policy or consider submitting the dispute to a third-party arbitrator, who could issue a binding decision on the mandate's legality.
Awsumb also said the court would establish an "accelerated procedure to allow for prompt determination of the issue" after the city argued its vaccine policy is an urgent attempt to protect public health. He scheduled a Jan. 20 hearing to address the status of negotiations.
"The issues aren't complicated here," said Chris Wachtler, an attorney representing the fire union. "What we've wanted from the beginning is a testing option. If the city is willing to give us that or discuss it, there's fertile ground for resolution."
Leggett said the city has received 248 requests for exemptions to date, adding that the city will not accept new requests and will postpone the processing of existing ones. The city will continue to accept proof of vaccination.
"COVID-19 is the leading cause of death among police officers and firefighters," Leggett said. "We will do everything we can to protect them, their families and the public we serve."
Mike Smith, president of the 430-member fire union, said his members have been frustrated by not knowing whether they will be granted an exemption as the city's deadline nears.
"The biggest message I want to get out there is we're not opposed to the vaccine," Smith said. "We've been opposed to the process, the lack of information given to us by the city."
St. Paul Police Federation President Mark Ross said the judge's order is "a great benefit to the folks who are kind of in limbo."
"I think the best possible scenario is we come together and we sit down and we negotiate a solution that works for everybody and does what it's supposed to do — which is to keep people safe and prevent the spread of COVID," he said.
Both lawsuits nodded to similar cases playing out in Chicago, where unions sued the city over a vaccine mandate that took effect in October. A judge there ruled that unions had a right to arbitration over the matter, and last week an arbitrator ruled that several unions must follow Mayor Lori Lightfoot's mandate, according to the Chicago Tribune. The police union in Chicago is scheduled to begin arbitration next week.
Awsumb granted a separate request for a temporary restraining order from a group representing some St. Paul parks and public works union employees. Unlike police officers and firefighters, those workers have the right to strike if negotiations fail.