Posted Tuesday, March 7, 2023, 6:36 pm
BY CRYSTAL LEWIS
Since the city’s vaccine mandate was lifted last month, some municipal workers who were terminated for declining to comply with the directive say that officials have been slow to provide clarity regarding their ability to return to work.
When Nwakaego Nwaifejokwu, who was dismissed from her job as a public-school teacher in February 2022 for refusing to get the jab, found out that the directive was going to be lifted, she didn’t immediately jump for joy.
“I knew there was going to be a catch,” she said during a recent phone interview with The Chief.
The catch, as it turns out, is that the 1,780 workers fired over the mandate will not be reinstated to their previous positions and instead can only apply for openings at their former agencies, “through existing city rules and regulations and hiring processes,” according to the Feb. 6 announcement lifting the mandate. They are also ineligible for back pay.
“You have to apply for a job like you’re a newbie off the street. You lose your tenure, which I worked very hard to get, so why would I come back to that?” asked Nwaifejokwu, who worked for 12 years as a special-education teacher in the Bronx.
Over the past year, Nwaifejokwu applied to work in other schools but couldn’t land a job because she wasn’t inoculated. In order to make ends meet, she started an online tutoring business. “I had to live off savings. It was not easy,” she said.
Carin Rosado, who worked for a decade as an FDNY paramedic until February 2022, was on her way to notarize her application to take out her pension the day she found out the mandate was going to end. She never ended up submitting the application.
“I was actually really shocked,” she said. “But then I started hearing the conditions — that we wouldn’t get our positions back.”
Rosado was concerned that if she applied to the FDNY, she might be rehired as an EMT — with a starting salary of $39,386 — rather than as a paramedic, who earn between $75,872 and $92,635 after five years on the job. She called the city’s refusal to reinstate the unvaccinated employees, many of whom were essential workers during the pandemic, “the biggest disrespect you can tell to your city heroes.”
She was also worried about what would happen to unvaccinated workers if the city decides to once again enact the vaccine mandate in the event of a Covid surge. “There’s no protection; if you’re unvaccinated this might happen again,” Rosado said.
Brendan Fogarty, an FDNY captain with 20 years of service, said he was emotional when he found out the mandate had ended because he’d always intended to return to his job.
“The Fire Department’s a calling; there’s no other job like it in the world,” he said. “I miss the people; I miss the routine. I’m hoping I can put this behind me.”
Fogarty added that he’s been advising other fired workers to reapply, but “some are bitter and turned off.”
‘It’s a mess’
Fogarty, who has been living off of his pension, was not terminated: he retired last May because he was concerned he would eventually be fired for not being vaccinated. He applied to return to the FDNY Feb. 10 — the same day the mandate was lifted — but hasn’t yet heard back from the city. “It seems like none of the agencies knew this was happening. It’s a mess,” he said.
Workers have a year from the date they were terminated to apply to return to the city; those who were fired on or prior to Feb. 11, 2022, have until March 10 to apply, according to Oren Barzilay, president of District Council 37’s Local 2507.
It is unclear how many of the workers fired for not complying with the mandate have applied to work for the city again.
City Hall stated that it is in the process of collecting that data, but did not have numbers to share. More than 96 percent of municipal workers have gotten the shot.
Once the workers request to be rehired, the agency will review the request and determine if there are any vacancies. “However, any rehire of any former employee is up to the discretion of the agency head,” according to a vaccine mandate guide from the city.
Fogarty hoped his return to the FDNY would be a straightforward process. But he was worried after hearing that the unvaccinated employees will be required to sign a waiver barring them from suing the city over back pay or civil-service rights in order to return.
City Hall confirmed the waiver, calling it a “limited waiver for back pay and civil service rights.”
The city added that the waiver “does not bar the employee from suing the city generally, just bars them from requesting back pay or civil service rights and status. The waiver applies to those who were terminated for non-disciplinary reasons and are seeking reinstatement.”
Fogarty is party to a lawsuit filed against the city last year alleging the vaccine mandate violated workers’ religious rights. “I’m not going to waive my rights,” he said.
Rosado, who now works at a vitamin infusion clinic, said she would not reapply for a city post if she is required to sign a waiver. She added that among the affected former city workers she’s spoken to, just one is planning to go back.
“How can they think we would give up our back pay and start over at a lower salary?” she asked.
Nwaifejokwu said that since Mayor Eric Adams announced that the city was lifting the mandate, she has not heard from the Department of Education or received any guidance about the application process for former employees interested in returning.
“There’s no clarity,” she said. “Once I have more clarity, I’ll figure out a decision then.”