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GFR fighting against City of Gainesville’s “vaccine or terminate” policy

GFR crew after putting out a recent commercial fire [Photo courtesy IAFF Local 2157]

BY HEATHER HANNAFORD

Gainesville Professional Firefighters Union is not against vaccines. But they are upset with the Gainesville City Commission’s policy that mandates COVID-19 vaccines for all City workers, with non-compliance leading to termination. Nick Gonzalez, the President of IAFF Local 2157, is concerned that this mandate “could have a catastrophic outcome for the City.” He says many of the union members feel scared, and morale is low. Gonzalez wants the City Commission to reconsider the way the mandate will be implemented. He understands that mandates are not unprecedented, but in other situations personal choice has generally been considered, and reasonable alternatives have been allowed. Gonzalez wants to retain that personal choice for union members.

The Florida constitution requires that unions must be allowed to negotiate terms of employment and working conditions. Gonzalez explained that the City’s mandate was unilaterally imposed, and it affects mandatory subjects of collective bargaining. Thus, the mandate must be negotiated between the union and the City. He feels that they can come to agreeable terms for both sides if they are allowed to negotiate.

Gonzalez said he thinks the City Commission was well-intentioned but relied on emotional appeal and inaccurate data when they made this decision. He said that 40% of his union members got the vaccine as soon as it was available to firefighters, as early as December 2020 or January 2021, with a few participating in the vaccine trials in 2020. Since then, quite a few more people have chosen to be vaccinated. He believes that number could be 60%, if not higher, now. He wishes to change the “vaccinate or terminate” mandate to a program that will educate and incentivize vaccines instead, saying “when you empower people to have a choice, they tend to pick a good one.” Gonzalez only asks that the City come to the bargaining table and work out a deal that will allow for some personal choice for union members. As he points out, other unions across the nation, such as the airlines, the Postal Workers Union, and unions for employees at Disney World, have had that right. 

IAFF Local 2157 has championed the vaccine, holding many vaccine clinics. They instituted testing when the City didn’t have enough in the early days of the pandemic. Gonzalez says that his workers have sacrificed a great to keep the city running during the pandemic, even when everything else was shut down. He notes that they didn’t ask for anything in return, as they are always ready to serve their communities. But now, Gonzalez is simply asking for the right to personal choice and to be heard by the City Commission. 

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Gonzalez urges the City Commission to reconsider because he fears there will be severe unintended consequences if this mandate is allowed to stand. He “would really hate for a policy to be what brings this city to a stop instead of the pandemic itself.” And, according to Gonzalez, that could very well happen. He said if people are terminated, or quit, due to this mandate, lots of City services will be affected, and response times for vital emergency aid will be significantly increased. He said there will be “serious threats to service levels across the city.” He believes that if the City Commission will negotiate with the union, they “can come away with a good product for everyone.” Gonzalez wants to ensure the safety of the Gainesville community and also the rights and safety of the people who serve it. 

Gonzalez only asks that the City Commission change the “vaccinate or terminate” mandate to allow for some personal choice. He also asks other citizens to reach out to the City Commissioners to help in their fight. Gonzalez wants to make sure Gainesville remains safe and that service to the community remains effective. He is proud to have served as an essential worker for 17 years and hopes that the dedication of the members of IAFF 2157 is taken into consideration. 

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