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Trash piles up as vaccination deadline looms for NYC workers

“We've given people lots and lots of time to come along voluntarily. Now we're saying that we have the right to save New York to ensure the safety of our employees, the safety of our people," the mayor said.

Trash piled up in parts of New York City on Thursday as garbage collection slowed ahead of the deadline for city workers to get vaccinated.

Missed collections were reported in Staten Island and Brooklyn. And residents have taken to social media in outrage over the accumulating garbage and to raise concern that the slowdown is intentional in protest of the vaccine mandate.

Pedestrians pass by trash bags piled on a street in New York on Oct. 28, 2021.Ed Jones / AFP - Getty Images

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who announced last week that city workers were required to have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine by Friday at 5 p.m. or be placed on unpaid leave, said that supervisors at the department of sanitation would not allow missed collections to continue, though neither he nor the sanitation department would say if the slowdown was on purpose.

"Anyone who is not doing their job, you're harming your fellow sanitation workers, and you're harming your neighbors, and you're harming your city," de Blasio said. “And it's time to stop.”

In a statement, the sanitation department said it is “aware that there are collection delays.”

City workers from other departments have protested the vaccine mandate, with hundreds of New York Fire Department employees rallying in front of the mayor's residence, Gracie Mansion, on Thursday. The mandate applies to about 100,000 city employees and the New York Police Department.

As of Thursday, 67 percent of New York City sanitation workers had been vaccinated.

New York City Fire Department union members, municipal workers and others protest the city's Covid-19 vaccine mandates on Manhattan's Upper East Side on Oct. 28, 2021.Mike Segar / Reuters

De Blasio said he has been in touch with the sanitation department and the union that represents sanitation employees. The department, de Blasio said, has been clear that the slowdown is unacceptable and that "there will be consequences." In the meantime, the sanitation department has canceled days off and will be requiring Sunday shifts to create additional capacity, as needed.

Joseph Mannion, president of the Sanitation Officers Association, fears the trash pileups might foreshadow a possible worker shortage on Monday if vaccination rates among sanitation workers don’t increase by Friday. He said that the sanitation department has been moving to snow season shifts — 12 hours instead of eight — in anticipation of a possible worker shortage.

"Prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Mannion said.

But Mannion is skeptical and said that he knows many sanitation workers are "hardened in their beliefs" and will refuse vaccination, even if it means being put on unpaid leave.

"I know more people are getting vaccinated, but is it going to change around 60 percent to 80 percent?" asked Mannion. "I don't know. I don't think so."

Harry Nespoli, president of Teamsters Local 831, the uniformed sanitation worker's association, said that he's unaware of an intentional sanitation slowdown or trash pileup. He is vaccinated but said the city should maintain its current protocol of testing unvaccinated people once a week instead of mandating vaccinations.

"When New York City was closed … all essential workers had to come to work, and they got sick," said Nespoli. "They took it home to their families, and they got better, and they had to come back again. Now you tell me that we're not good enough to be city workers?"

Even with evidence of the vaccine's proven safety and effectiveness, Todd J. Strier, a lawyer who often represents sanitation workers, said that he knows many will refuse the vaccine, despite the prospect of unpaid leave. Strier said he anticipates lawsuits in the months to come.

“Whenever a sanitation worker is separated from service because of failure to take a vaccine, the only recourse is to test in the courts to see if the employer or the city actually has a right to do so,” said Strier.

The mandate will be enforced as planned, de Blasio said, emphasizing that city workers were given time and a $500 incentive to get vaccinated.

“This decision is about the health and safety of all New Yorkers,” de Blasio said. “We've given people lots and lots of time to come along voluntarily. Now we're saying that we have the right to save New York to ensure the safety of our employees, the safety of our people."