Up to 4,800 city workers who have filed for religious and medical vaccine exemptions could be out of a job soon if their applications are denied in the coming weeks.
Human resource staffers at individual agencies are methodically going through each of the applications to determine if they are legitimate, according to city officials. The possible cuts could leave city agencies — which have already fired 1,430 workers for refusing to get vaccinated so far — shorthanded, according to union officials.
The Adams administration hopes that people whose exception letters are rejected will decide to get the inoculation shots to keep their jobs.
All told, approximately 95% of the city workforce has gotten at least one shot of the vaccine, according to city officials. That’s up from the 84% since October when the mandate was announced by former Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Our goal was always to vaccinate, not terminate, and city workers stepped up and met the goal placed before them,” Mayor Eric Adams said earlier this month.
Of 7,030 exemption requests processed from Oct. 29 to Feb. 9, 4,912 have been denied and 2,118, or 30%, were approved, according to mayoral spokesperson Jonah Allon. The Adams administration has not broken down the data between religious and medical requests.
About 4,800 of the total 13,044 exemptions filed remain pending an initial response, city records show. Some of those requests will likely be approved but city officials contend that most employees who have had their applications denied have opted to get vaccinated.
“The city has processed over half of the accommodation requests without seeing any delays, disruptions, or loss of city services and we anticipate processing the remaining requests without any issues,” said mayoral spokesperson Jonah Allon.
Staffers waiting for a response on their exemptions remain on the payroll and working while other anti-vaxxers who did not file exemption requests have been put on unpaid leave.
Meanwhile in New York City, some spiritual leaders, like Rabbi Avraham Soffer, see signing off on the letters as a key tenant of the religion.
Any rabbi who rejects such a request “isn’t Jewish,” the Midwood-based Soffer told THE CITY He said has signed more than 5,000 exemption letters, including some for city workers and staffers employed by local nonprofits.
“If you claim that the Torah laws don’t apply in this instance, obviously, something’s wrong with you,” he said. “Obviously you don’t believe in Torah.”
In September, multiple prominent rabbis put together a YouTube clip urging members from the community to get vaccinated.
“We in the community have to realize that if 99% of doctors say to take the shot, you take the shot. What are we, playing games?” asked Rabbi Yaakov Bender, head of Yeshiva Darchei Torah in Far Rockaway.
As for Soffer’s letters, some including three for city cops, have been rejected, he said.
“It’s totally unfair,” he argued. “These people have families to support.”
Soffer says he doesn’t charge people for the exemption papers but has launched a fundraising campaign to sponsor ads publicizing his services. The “Stop All Hurt” campaign has raised $7,608 from 58 donations, according to the ChesedFund, a Jewish version of GoFundMe.
Soffer is not alone.
Some seeking a religious hall pass have argued that the use of aborted fetal cells in medical research for vaccines is a violation of their faith, according to letters obtained by THE CITY. Others contend their Catholic beliefs state “man should be in the hand of his own counsel.”
Government agencies have a lot of leeway when it comes to enforcing a vaccine mandate, under case law.
“The chances of defeating the mandate are between slim and none — and slim is out of town,” Manhattan-based lawyer Jerold Levine, who focuses on civil service and gun rights cases, told THE CITY in December.
People have to prove that the mandate somehow targets their religion in order to be exempt from the requirement.
The high bar of proof hasn’t stopped thousands from applying.
The NYPD has led the way with 6,170 officers who filed exemption applications, 1,850 in the FDNY, 550 at the Human Resources Administration and Department of Social Services, and 380 at the Department of Environmental Protection, according to city records.
Some federal agencies, like the Air Force, have rejected all religious exemption applications as of Jan. 21, the latest available data. That military wing has “disapproved” of 2,787 such filings and 2,443 are pending, according to records posted online. The Air Force has also approved 3,781 medical exemptions.