Van Buren Township mandates COVID-19 vaccines; unions push back

Ben Wilson
The Detroit News

Van Buren Township, Mich. — The township is mandating COVID-19 vaccines for its 140 employees, prompting criticism and a warning from its public safety unions that it could result in a thinning of their ranks.

The township's board of trustees reaffirmed its vote, 6-1 Tuesday in favor of the rule that could go into effect on Sep. 16. But officials told The Detroit News on Thursday that the time table could be delayed as officials evaluate ways to enforce the measure without having to terminate employees, township Clerk Leon Wright said. 

Marc Abdilla, president of the township's Command Officer Union, said they oppose the COVID-19 vaccine policy and estimate 20% of the township's police and fire officials might quit as a result.

The mandate has been under discussion since June, when trustees first voted in favor of instituting the vaccine requirement. Supervisor Kevin McNamara had called for the second vote on Tuesday in hopes that the board would undo the mandate. McNamara said he wasn't willing to fire people and the policy didn't have an enforcement mechanism. 

The township is the latest to impose a vaccination requirement, joining Henry Ford Health System and Trinity Health, the University of Michigan and Albion College. The COVID-19 rules come as lawmakers in Michigan and elsewhere take up measures to prohibit discrimination over a worker's immunization status as more employees return to work. 

Adam Byrd, president of the Van Buren Township Police and Dispatchers Union, and Marc Abdilla, president of the Command Officer Union, said they oppose the policy and estimate 20% of the township's police and fire officials might quit as a result.

Byrd oversees the police patrol unit members and Abdilla’s union includes police command officers and firefighters. 

"After the (board) meeting, I emailed our board members and some said, 'We'd rather get fired than take that vaccine,'" Byrd said. "We only have a 40-man department. A few officers, a few dispatchers, can significantly cripple the safety of our department."

Sharry Budd, township treasurer and a trustee, said she supported the decision because she believes it will protect the public and employees' families. 

"We service all kinds of people, and with public safety (officers), they are going into different situations and don't know who they're going to be seeing," said Budd, adding that ensuring that all of the staff is vaccinated will keep the public safe in those interactions. 

Abdilla said those not vaccinated won’t be convinced. The city, he said, stands to lose the “experience, time, money and energy” invested in its public safety employees, who will find a job elsewhere.

“It’s hard to hire people right now in the public safety sector,” he said. “And they’re going to take all that experience from Van Buren and go anywhere and get hired.”

Byrd added other municipalities in the state will look at Van Buren's mandate and see if there is "resistance and public outcry."

"If a lot of municipalities follow this protocol ... then you can lose a lot of government employees," he said. 

Byrd said five of the township's 11 command officers and three of the 28 patrol unit members have had COVID-19.

McNamara said although he's opposed to the requirement, he voted with the majority of trustees for it, so he can revisit the issue later.

He said he is "confident" they will find common ground with critics. 

McNamara said he's looking into a "policy to try and handle non-compliance directives."

"The question now becomes how do you mandate a vaccination and not fire employees?" he said.