As a mandate deadline kicked in, more than 100 unvaccinated court workers were handed pink slips Thursday as a handful of judges—legally entitled to their jobs—were barred from courthouses.
As four state judges continue to flout the New York Unified Court System’s vaccine mandate— subjecting them to possible disciplinary action—a state court union leader who’s engaged in a fight against the court system regarding the rule said his thoughts were with the more than 100 non-judicial employees who were sent terminations letters Thursday for their continued noncompliance.
“We’ve been putting up a fight since July on this matter and have sought continuously to negotiate the implications and the impact that this mandate has on court employees who have chosen to remain unvaccinated,” Patrick Cullen, president of the Supreme Court Officers Association, said Thursday.
A dozen unions, representing every title in the court system from Buffalo to Montague, have joined the association’s ongoing case regarding the matter that’s in front of the New York State Public Employment Relations Board, Cullen said.
“We have continuously believed this to be unfair,” he said. “We believe that there were absolutely other alternative measures that individuals who’ve made these decisions could have sought to retain their employment and stay with us.”
In lieu of becoming vaccinated, the union leader said those possible courses of action include a continuation of weekly testing for the COVID-19 virus “to protect members of the public and others who may come in contact with our employees, which was certainly acceptable to the unified court system early on in this process.”
“We actually had a testing component, and that testing component was taken off the table in favor of the straight vaccination mandate,” he said of bargaining efforts.
Imogene Jones, president of the New York State Court Clerks Association, which represents the city’s five boroughs, said membership has dropped from about 1,600 members in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, to about 1,300, with some people retiring or resigning because they don’t want to get vaccinated.
“It’s been a big impact,” she said. “There are major shortages. There are not enough clerks to cover courts, and cases cannot be heard because you don’t have enough clerks to cover the courts.”
This has resulted in a backlog of work that has had judges sitting in chambers waiting because they don’t have enough staffing to equip their courtrooms, Jones said.
“It’s just hard,” she said.
Lucian Chalfen, a state spokesman for the Unified Court System, said 103 non-judicial employees were sent termination letters Thursday, while one employee chose to resign and 11 notified the Office of the State Comptroller that they were retiring.
Some of those retirements were early and to the detriment of their pensions, Cullen said.
Two weeks ago, 156 non-judicial New York State Court employees were notified that they would be terminated if they remained unvaccinated, of which 41 employees chose to comply with the mandate and will return to duty, Chalfen said.
Two judges in New York City and two outside of the city remain unvaccinated and continue to be barred from entering any court facility, and must work from home, Chalfen said.
Judges in criminal courts are not allowed to conduct arraignments.
“We had made it clear from the outset that any judge not in and continuing not to be in compliance subjects themselves to a referral to the Commission on Judicial Conduct for their determination,” Chalfen said in a statement.
According to media reports, two of the judges are believed to be New York Court of Appeals Associate Justice Jenny Rivera, who was not on the bench during this week’s investitures of three other associate justices, and has been participating remotely since October, and Poughkeepsie City Court Judge Frank Mora.
A judge in one of the city’s five boroughs, spoke of the negative “optics” of the stance taken by Rivera, who’s been with the high court since 2013.
“The highest court is supposed to set the highest standard for the legal profession,” said the judge, who asked not to be identified, “and people are talking about it. They’re thinking it’s giving the court a black eye.”