1,200 Hawaii 1st Responders Sue State Over Vaccine Mandate

By Cynthia Cai
Cynthia Cai
Cynthia Cai
Reporter
August 19, 2021 Updated: August 24, 2021

Roughly 1,200 first responders in Hawaii are suing the state over its new vaccine mandate. Hawaii Gov. David Ige announced the mandate on Aug. 5, mandating that state and county employees must provide proof of full vaccination for COVID-19 or be subject to regular weekly testing and travel restrictions (pdf).

Ige said in the mandate that employees had until Aug. 16 to comply or face “disciplinary action, up to and including termination.” However, Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi extended the deadline by one week due to a possible sudden shortage of county workers caused by the unvaccinated employees having to stay home.

“The highly contagious Delta variant creates a big risk of infection, especially for members of our community who are not vaccinated. With spiking COVID-19 case numbers, we have to take measures now to prevent an unmanageable strain on our healthcare system. This new vaccination and testing policy for state and county workers will help protect the health, safety, and welfare of the people of Hawaii,” Ige said in a statement.

Although religious and medical exemptions are accepted, some workers’ unions have noted that the mandate lacks information on qualifications for a religious or medical exemption, as well as the procedures for applying for and obtaining such exemptions.

In response to the mandate, police, firefighters, and EMS workers from the counties of Honolulu and Maui filed a class-action lawsuit on Aug. 15 (pdf), calling for the state to rescind the new mandate.

The first responders will be represented by three attorneys: Michael Green, attorney at Michael Jay Green & Associates; Shawn Luiz, attorney at Shawn A. Luiz, Attorney at Law; and Kristin Coccaro, Esq., attorney at Empire Law, LLC.

“If they can’t prove the testing because they’re waiting for their free tests … they’re going to be home without pay. So it’s almost the same result as being fired. You’re having a large majority of our first responders off the street without pay and being punished,” Coccaro said in a press conference with KHON2 News.

City employees who don’t have access to free testing will be responsible for arranging and covering the costs of tests themselves, according to the governor’s mandate.

The governor also suspended certain sections of Chapter 89 of the Collective Bargaining in Public Employment laws that allow workers’ unions to bargain on behalf of their union employees.

“Some of the strongest unions in the country are here in Hawaii, and the governor threw his emergency proclamation order [to] destroy the unions’ abilities to fight for their employees,” Green said. “We have thousands of people who are told, ‘You are going to take this vaccination or you won’t have a job.’”

Green and Luiz explained during the press conference that the concern isn’t about the vaccines, but about the mandates and the lack of prior discussion and notice.

“They’re just asking for the chance to choose,” Luiz said. “It’s a personal, autonomous health care decision, and everyone should make their own choice whether or not they want to take a vaccine.”

Captain Kaimi Pelekai of the Honolulu Fire Department told KHON2 News during the press conference that the city had only sent a letter to county employees, telling them to get vaccinated or show proof of a religious or medical exemption by Aug. 16. The governor gave employees 10 days to comply with the mandate.

“I spent the last 20 years of my life, and 37 years watching my dad do this job, and because I didn’t want to put an experimental drug in my body, I got to give that all up?” Pelekai said.

“If we’re not there [on Monday], it’s because of them,” he said. “It’s because of the mayor. It’s because of the governor. We want to be there! We signed up for this! This is what we want to do for the rest of our lives! We want to run in. We want to stop the bullet. We want to swim into the 40-foot waves to save your lives! That’s what we want. That’s what we wanted to be. And if we’re not there on the 16th, you can call Mayor Blangiardi and thank him.”

Hawaii’s firefighters also occasionally aid California in putting out wildfires. The Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park Fire Crew is currently assisting crews fighting California’s Dixie Fire.

The lawsuit is set for a hearing on Sept. 8 before U.S. District Judge Derrick K. Watson.

Cynthia Cai
Cynthia Cai
Reporter