Some 2,300 New York City firefighters didn’t show up for work Monday, taking “sick leave” rather than get vaccinated.
The city had issued an ultimatum to all employees: Get vaccinated or risk losing your job. The mandate is “causing an exodus” of firefighters, warned the president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.
The Big Apple firefighter “sickout” sounded like this might be a political uprising for personal liberty, but one that was risking public safety. What if a fire broke out and no one showed up? The situation seemed to be fueling fears and feeding a larger narrative of polarization.
If you look a little closer, the numbers tell a more nuanced story.
Police, firefighters, and municipal employees aren’t spearheading a rebellion. Most are calmly complying.
Overall, 92% of the city’s employees have received at least one vaccine dose – well above the rate among adult New York City residents. The vaccination rate among New York City police officers is at 85%, up from 70% two weeks ago. The vaccination rate of firefighters was 77%, up from 58% on Oct. 20, say city officials. And that “exodus” of 2,300 firefighters on “sick leave”? That’s only about twice the normal sick leave rate.
Yes, some 9,000 city employees – from police to sanitation workers – have been placed on unpaid leave for not getting vaccinated. Again, that sounds like a big number. But it’s less than 3% of the total city workforce. And out of that 9,000, only 89 police officers (out of 35,000) had been placed on unpaid leave as of Tuesday.
It’s a reminder of the need to delve beneath the headlines for the facts. The situation is still unsettled, but the dangers and stakes need to be calibrated honestly. What could look like a rebellion against government tyranny on closer scrutiny looks more like a story of law-abiding workers doing their best to navigate difficult choices.