Philadelphia City Hall tower. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn)

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The City of Philadelphia is pushing closer to a universal COVID vaccine mandate for city employees. Late last month, it quietly introduced a new rule for all non-unionized workers.

In a memo dated Oct. 22, Jim Engler, chief of staff to Mayor Jim Kenney, alerted senior city officials that all “exempt and non-represented city employees” would be required to be fully vaccinated by Dec. 1 or lose their jobs.

The city had already mandated vaccination for municipal healthcare workers beginning in August and for newly hired city employees beginning Sept. 1, but until recently was allowing the rest of the workforce to either show proof of vaccination or wear a double-mask at work.

The new policy applies to some 4,000 city workers, or 14% of the municipal workforce, a city spokesperson confirmed.

“Employees who fail to comply with the mandate will be considered unable to perform their duties, will be informed they may no longer report for work, and carried on unpaid status for up to fifteen days,” Engler wrote in the memo, obtained by Billy Penn. “At the end of that period, if those employees have not received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, they will be separated from employment.”

Employees can request forms to apply for a religious or medical exemption from the vaccine requirement before Dec. 1, according to the memo, but, “An individual may not simply opt out of vaccination.”

The rule applies to any city workers who aren’t represented by a union or are exempt from civil service requirements (this includes elected positions, City Council appointees, certain department heads, and some contracted and temporary employees, according to the city charter).

Philly officials previously said they were not pursuing strict mandates for municipal employees like some other big cities have imposed

“We don’t have that type of vaccine mandate that New York has. It’s not a ‘vaccine-or-be-terminated’ mandate, it’s a requirement to either be vaccinated or double-mask,” Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said at a press conference two days prior to Engler’s memo.

Already, all federal workers are required to be vaccinated. Public workers in Philadelphia’s collar counties are subject to a patchwork of vaccine policies. Under new rules announced by the Biden administration, all companies with more than 100 workers must require employees to get vaccinated by Jan. 4, or undergo weekly testing — a policy that would affect around 1.8 million Philly-area workers, per The Inquirer. Public workers in surrounding counties are subject to a patchwork of vaccine policies. A recent University of Pennsylvania study showed vaccine mandates were effective in encouraging more people to get vaccinated.

In response to questions from Billy Penn about the city’s new rule, spokesperson James Garrow said the health department supports efforts to get more of the workforce vaccinated.

“The policies outlined in the latest memo will protect our colleagues and the greater public, as vaccines are a safe and incredibly effective way to reduce the spread and impact COVID-19 – and mandates have proven effective in increasing worker vaccination rates.”

Rates of vaccination vary widely among different departments, with vaccination estimated at 90% to 100% in the Philadelphia Law Department and 40% to 50% in the Streets Department. The city says it began offering incentives to get workers vaccinated in the spring.

The mandate for healthcare workers that was adopted in August only applied to a few hundred people, according to spokesperson Joy Huertas. That policy notably did not apply to paramedics and EMS workers who are represented by the International Association of Fire Firefighters Local 22. Those workers “were not expressly mentioned in the Health Department’s previous guidance for the healthcare worker mandate,” Huertas said. Local 22 did not respond to questions.

Municipal workers who haven’t been vaccinated or reported their status are supposed to double-mask at work, but there’s no uniform enforcement of the rule, and adherence has been “wildly varying” in different offices, WHYY reported.

Among the roughly 4,000 employees subject to the new policy, some 75% have self-reported their vaccination status to the city, according to Huertas. The city did not share information about actual vaccination rates among the group. Only around 30% of unionized workers have self-reported their vaccination status so far, Huertas said.

The new policy is a step closer to a vaccine mandate as the city bargains with public-sector unions, which represent a majority of the 27,000-person municipal workforce.

“We cannot simply mandate vaccination for our unionized employees without bargaining with our unions,” Huertas said. “Our goal is to come to an agreement that ensures our entire workforce is vaccinated (with the exception of those who are granted either a medical or religious exemption — and even in these cases, additional mitigation measures, like regular testing, will be put in place to ensure we keep our employees and the public safe).”

Asked if the city’s goal is to adopt a vaccine mandate for all city workers, Huertas responded simply, “Yes.”