It is disappointing to learn that a substantial number of our community’s first responders refuse to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but it is astonishing to see their unions and leadership assert that special accommodations for these members are the solution. The message you are sending is that the personal beliefs and feelings of individual members are more important than the health and safety of your colleagues and those you serve.
We expect our public health and safety professionals to keep us safe. We require – and provide – training, equipment, and proactive measures to keep our community safe and healthy. Compliance with these measures is a requirement for the job and the vast majority of our first responders participate gladly. We don’t give exemptions for gloves or masks or any other measure for protecting both firefighters and community members; why would we do so with the COVID-19 vaccine?
We ask first responders to risk their personal health and safety in the line of duty, and in return, we commit to minimizing that risk to the best of our ability. Reducing COVID-19 transmission at their workplace is one way we can reduce risk to our first responders, just as it is for the many workplaces requiring vaccination. Now their union is using their dues to fight improved workplace safety, and their leadership are going along for the ride.
Unions and leadership are using fear tactics, imploring us that they will be so understaffed they will be unable to respond to all emergencies. There are two solutions to this problem which we prefer over providing special exemptions.
- Reduce the number of unvaccinated first responders. How are we helping hesitant staff choose to be vaccinated? People can and do change their minds about vaccination. Strategies known to be effective include: providing on-site, on-shift consultations with trusted doctors, modeling information-based decision making, scheduling on-site vaccine clinics, granting paid leave for a vaccine appointment, and providing incentives. Clear and consistent messaging is key, and leadership should openly support the mandate so it is clear to first responders that the vaccines are safe and effective and no special exemptions are forthcoming.
- Hire new staff. Refusal to participate in a safe and effective public health measure is disqualifying. We know that specialized first responder jobs require training, and that training takes more time that we have before the mandate goes into effect. We also know that firefighting positions are highly competitive, well compensated, and represented by a powerful union – these are coveted jobs. Public safety leadership, what do you need to ramp up hiring? How can we rely on “volunteer” firefighters to fill in? How can we use this opportunity to recruit a more diverse workforce? How can we hire already qualified staff who live locally but work in other communities? As of today, the number of firefighting job openings on the City of Bellingham website is zero. Let’s rally around a recruiting and training push that results in better fire and police departments.
Eighteen months into a pandemic, with our hospital reaching record numbers of largely unvaccinated COVID-19 patients, with multiple safe and effective vaccine options, we support vaccine mandates for workplaces, especially for public health & safety first-responders.
Leadership involves doing what’s right in service of your community’s most vulnerable. We look to our leadership for creative and compassionate problem-solving, not special exemptions.
Riveters Collective Board of Directors
Suzanne M Rosser