The other day, I talked to a doorman in New York who’s been working at his building for nearly 30 years. He’s suspicious of the COVID vaccine, he says, and has been from the beginning. “I’m not happy about it,” he said. “I don’t want to get a shot, and I don’t think anyone should be forced to get something injected into their body that they’re not comfortable with.” He’s received emails from his union encouraging him to get vaccinated, but he plans to refuse. And, despite those emails, the union has his back.
In buildings across the city, there’s a push to mandate vaccinations for public-facing building employees like doormen and concierges. Leni Cummins, an attorney at Cozen O’Connor, said that she has so far drafted vaccination policies for five of the 75 condominium and cooperative boards that she represents. She said a vaccination mandate for door staff was a “no-brainer” decision for many board members. “Boards seem pretty unified in wanting to require them to be vaccinated,” she said. And, to be sure, there aren’t hordes of holdouts. Ardist Brown Jr. got sick with COVID in March 2020. He’s the concierge at a luxury co-op on the Upper West Side, and when he recovered and went back to work, he spent the next year fearing he would get reinfected. Among his colleagues in the building, he sees almost no resistance to getting vaccinated, and got the jab as soon as doormen were eligible. “Most of the guys that I work with want to get vaccinated,“ he said. “Guys are cheering for other guys when they go get vaccinated, and you can feel the urgency they have in wanting to get it.” Brown, in fact, was active in the months-long, industry-wide campaign to get the state to include doormen in the early priority groups.
Employers can legally demand vaccination as a condition of employment. According to December guidelines issued by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers have the right to bar their employees from the workplace if they refuse vaccination. (Employees can claim exemptions based on pre-existing medical conditions or religious beliefs.) So far, though, the biggest pushback against a mandate is coming not from individual doormen but from their union. Most doormen in New York are members of SEIU 32BJ, which represents 35,000 residential-building workers throughout the Northeast. Although 32BJ has been encouraging its members to get the vaccine through information sessions and seminars, it’s against any mandate. “We’re trying to figure out a way to meet the perfectly reasonable desire to have employees vaccinated,” Carolina Gonzalez, a union spokesperson, told Curbed. “I understand why people would feel more comfortable with a staff that is vaccinated, but that is not something that is accounted for in any way in the contract of these workers.”
Management companies, which are caught between the desires of their building clients and the perhaps greater desire not to antagonize the union, are steering in between. Dennis DePaola, executive vice-president at Orsid Realty, said the company is still very much in the “encouragement stage” of mandating vaccinations. “We really want to get the union’s backing in enforcing vaccinations on the employees before [enforcing them ourselves],” he said. Orsid, which is one of the largest realty groups with union-staffed buildings, has enacted a vaccination education program for door staff in each of its 180 properties across New York City, and has even partnered with B’nai Jeshurun, a local synagogue, where volunteers can schedule appointments for employees who are unable to do so themselves. The company reports that volunteers have so far assisted over 200 building employees in securing vaccinations.
Other buildings have considered using “incentive programs” to reward employees who get vaccinated, said Michael Wolfe, president of Midboro Management, which manages 150 buildings across the city, including Brown’s. “Although the state has offered four hours of off-time for employees to get their vaccine, some buildings are offering extra time off, gift cards, or [other] rewards for opting in [to vaccination],” he said.” Some of Wolfe’s own buildings are testing out such programs, but he acknowledged that the strategy was divisive. “Other boards feel, ‘Why are we paying a reward to keep someone healthy?’”
Cummins, the real-estate attorney, added that boards have struggled with whether or not to spell out medical or religious exemptions that are permitted into their policies. “Four of [the five I’ve completed so far] have decided not to write them in, and as a matter of practice, if somebody falls into one of those two categories, they would exempt them from their requirement,” she said. However, even though doormen might be able to use these loopholes to back out of getting vaccinated, that doesn’t shield them from having their job duties altered. “Discussions have centered around moving employees that don’t want to get vaccinated to a position that’s less front-facing,” she said. DePaola clarified, “It would not be a disciplinary action, but an accommodation. “We can continue to keep you employed, you’ll still get your same wages and similar shifts, but you’ll be doing a job in the back, mopping floors or doing whatever’s necessary to keep the building running, as an accommodation to your objection.”
Cummins sees the most potential trouble brewing when it comes to third-party vendors hired by residents. “Everyone wants their cleaning person, everyone wants their nanny, everyone wants their dog-walker, everyone wants their particular contractor,” she said. “Boards have been struggling with whether or not [a vaccination mandate for contract workers] is going to limit the number of contractors they can get on projects, thereby making projects more expensive.” She also notes that a mandate would screen out certain contractors, since not all will be vaccinated.
Orsid Realty’s DePaola doesn’t anticipate the widespread adoption of mandates on third-party contractors. He points to the screening measures that are already in place that can easily be modified to include proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test. “I would caution anyone imposing vaccine mandates against groups of workers without passing similar mandates for building residents,” he said. “There could be sensitive political implications that should be strongly considered before doing so.”
For many building owners, the basis for a vaccination mandate was set in place last April, at the start of the pandemic, when boards required their tenants to wear masks, limited or closed shared common spaces, required registration at concierge desks, or prohibited third-party services altogether.
“The precedent has already been set that boards have very wide authority and latitude,” Cummins said. “A vaccination mandate seems more invasive because it is literally invasive, but I think the whole pandemic has proven [that] … when this is challenged in court, I expect that you will see latitude being given to boards.”
Though Brown fought for vaccine eligibility, he isn’t sure that buildings en masse should push vaccination requirements. “I’m interested in how it would fly over, because what about the shareholders? What about the people who live there? Not all of them are vaccinated yet,” he said.
The negotiations between buildings and the union are still well underway, said 32BJ’s Gonzalez. She added that any dismissals of unvaccinated employees before a deal was reached could be contested in court. She admitted that an agreement might not be reached until the end of the year. “Our stance is that we want to protect workers’ jobs, we want to protect workers’ health, and we want to protect public health,” she said. “Handing down a mandate is not necessarily going to get people to vaccinate more.”