COVID Vaccine illustration

February 17, 2023 — The Supreme Court, Onondaga County, issued a decision January 13, finding unlawful a Department of Health (DOH) regulation mandating certain health care workers be vaccinated.   

The decision stands in contrast to a number of prior court decisions finding the regulation to be lawfully adopted, including one issued in Supreme Court, Albany County, days earlier. The State has subsequently filed a notice of appeal of the decision and an application for a stay of the court’s order with the Appellate Division, Fourth Department.  Nonetheless, unless and until the Fourth Department issues a stay or overturns the decision on appeal, the court’s order remains in effect and the State is prohibited from implementing or enforcing the DOH vaccine mandate. 

The Onondaga County Supreme Court found that DOH operated outside its legislative grant of authority in adopting the regulation and there was no rational basis for the regulation. The court declared the regulation null and void and prohibited the state from enforcing or implementing the regulation. 

Statewide, about 150 PEF members were issued notices of discipline for failing to receive the vaccine while the mandate was in effect. Many of those members went through an arbitration process, as outlined in PEF’s collective bargaining agreement with the State.  Many of the cases have been resolved over the past year by settlements, resignations, retirements, and arbitration awards either terminating or reinstating members.  

There is a 90-day window following an arbitrator’s decision during which petitions to vacate arbitration awards can be filed, so the ruling impacts only a handful of PEF members whose cases were decided during that timeframe. In the wake of the ruling, PEF filed two lawsuits – one in Onondaga County and one in Suffolk County.  

When the court handed down its decision in January, PEF legal staff immediately contacted agencies and arbitrators in pending cases, seeking to adjourn pending hearings. Initially, the State opposed PEF’s efforts to put the arbitrations on hold. It took PEF indicating it would pursue a temporary restraining order from the court and raising the matter with the Governor’s Office and the SUNY Chancellor’s Office to affect action. 

“We were shocked the agencies initially refused to join PEF in agreeing to dismiss the charges or, at least, put these cases on hold,” said PEF President Wayne Spence. “PEF’s continued advocacy for members eventually secured a pause in all pending disciplinary cases brought against members subject to the regulation. As we understand it, this pause was subsequently extended to cases involving other unions at the covered agencies.” 

Fallout from the regulation has further exacerbated short staffing across the state. 

“We are aware of members who went to work in other health care facilities and settings where they were not subject to a vaccine mandate,” said Spence. “We are also aware of others who relocated to other states that do not mandate vaccination of health care workers.  Unfortunately, all of this compounded the staffing shortages that New York health care facilities are experiencing.” 

PEF is closely monitoring proceedings at the N.Y. State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Department on the state’s request for a stay of the order striking down the vaccine mandate. If granted, the stay would allow agencies and facilities to resume disciplinary actions. PEF opposes a stay and will continue to advocate for all impacted members.