NORTH PROVIDENCE – Court proceedings on whether an Oct. 1 deadline for firefighters to get vaccines or potentially lose their jobs will be enforced were set for additional action this week.
Labor attorney Vincent Ragosta told The Breeze he expected a judge to rule on a couple of items on Tuesday, Sept. 28, while also moving to continue the matter to a later date. So far, said Ragosta, North Providence and Smithfield have signed on to have him represent them in the matter, but other Rhode Island communities, such as Pawtucket, have said they could also officially jump in as they wait to see how this plays out.
North Providence has up to 13 firefighters who still aren’t vaccinated leading up to an Oct. 1 deadline to do so. Mayor Charles Lombardi says he’s sticking with his previous edict that EMT firefighters who don’t get the COVID vaccine will lose their jobs, in keeping with the state’s mandates on licensing.
The North Providence Fire Department is about 90 percent vaccinated, said Ragosta, and Smithfield firefighters are probably closer to 95 percent vaccinated, which is part of his argument before Superior Court Judge Melissa Darigan questioning whether unions even have standing if nearly all firefighters are vaccinated. He says unions are supposed to be democratic, but only a small percentage of members are holding out against the vaccines.
The Rhode Island State Association of Fire Fighters is challenging the vaccine mandate from the Rhode Island Department of Health.
Attorney Joseph Penza Jr., representing the fire unions in seeking a restraining order, has said that losing EMT licenses and jobs would cause irreparable harm as firefighters are replaced, and that this harm couldn’t be undone.
Ragosta contends that firefighters must show immediate threat of harm or injury, which they haven’t done, and that any loss of license or job can be addressed through the remedy of the grievance and arbitration process, meaning their arguments don’t meet the test.
Further, says Ragosta, certification is part of the collective bargaining agreement as a condition of continued employment, so firefighters can’t argue that they’ve never contemplated this scenario.
About 10 percent of union members statewide are still unvaccinated, according to attorneys for the firefighters.
Jay Petrillo, president of the Local 2334 of the International Association of Fire Fighters in North Providence, said this week that he expected rulings Tuesday on the likelihood of the lawsuit’s success and whether the vaccine mandate is causing irreparable harm. Firefighters from more than 20 departments have signed on against the mandate, he said.
As he’s emphasized before, said Petrillo, the union is all about people getting vaccinated, but not for a mandate impacting the livelihood of workers who were on the front lines of the pandemic.
Petrillo said some firefighters out of the 10-13 in North Providence who are still unvaccinated have said that they’ll get the vaccine if it ultimately comes down to the prospect of losing their jobs.
Lombardi this week said that the North Providence Fire Department is in “pretty good shape” and getting better with vaccinated firefighters, and service will not be impacted whether these particular firefighters are on the job or not. He said the job of fire and town officials is to make sure the necessary personnel are still responding.
“I don’t see where any community signed on to have the union represent them,” he told The Breeze. “I don’t think they’ve got any standing.”
This is a mandate, said Lombardi, and “we’re going to follow the mandate.”
He urged the state not to “flip-flop,” after he already sent out the edict, but said if the mandate is reversed, he will be left with no choice but to follow the state’s authority again.
“If they flip-flop now, it’s not fair to the community that sent out the letter,” he said.
Firefighters need to have an EMT license, and if they don’t get the COVID shot, they’re not going to have the EMT license, he said.
“I appreciate what our guys do, this is just a situation of following the mandate,” Lombardi said. “I assure everyone that we’ll have no problem providing the medical services that they’re used to receiving.”
Lynn Blais, of Fatima Hospital and president of the United Nurses and Allied Professionals, issued a statement Monday regarding the Oct. 1 mandatory vaccine deadline for health care workers and the current staffing shortage in the field.
“First, we want to reiterate our support for the vaccine mandate for health care workers in Rhode Island. UNAP members have been on the front lines fighting the COVID-19 pandemic since day one, and no one has witnessed the massive toll it has taken on Rhode Islanders more so than we have,” she said.
“We’ve seen the outcomes – loneliness, physical and mental health struggles, death and despair – for far too many people, including our members. We support this mandate because this is a public health issue and Rhode Islanders who need healthcare services should expect to be safe in health facilities,” she added.
“The vaccine has been proven to be safe and effective, and getting as many Rhode Islanders vaccinated as possible is the only way we will end this pandemic and get back to some sense of normalcy. Our members, the nurses and health professionals who have risked our health and our lives in service of others, are physically and mentally exhausted, and the current path we are on is not sustainable. We have the tools to end this pandemic, and we owe it to all Rhode Islanders to use them.”