Long Beach is requiring all of its 6,069 employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19—and those workers will face an uphill battle if they seek an exemption to the requirement, officials say.

The city is still working out the details—including a deadline—with employee unions, but officials have said that this will be a “true mandate,” with “consequences,” though officials have not yet specified whether those consequences will include termination.

Similar to other jurisdictions, some local government workers have already applied for a medical or religious exemption, though it’s not clear how many.

City officials say Long Beach will follow state and federal employment laws when it comes to evaluating these exemption requests, but they will be rare.

Here’s what criteria will be used in determining whether someone qualifies.

What religions are against vaccinations? 

No mainstream religious sects have said they are against vaccinations. The Catholic Church, Jehovah’s Witness Christian Scientists and others have all put out public statements saying it’s OK for their followers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Some smaller denominations like the Dutch Reform congregations and Faith Assembly, however, are opposed to vaccines.

Federal and state fair employment laws do not put a size requirement on the religion for it to qualify for an exemption, and may also take into account informal beliefs.

Employers must evaluate whether the religious beliefs are “sincerely held,” and whether accommodating this belief would pose an undue hardship on the employer, or would present a direct threat to health and safety of others.

David Lewin, professor emeritus at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, said it will be difficult to get a religious exemption.

“It turns out there really are no religious exemptions, that’s just a crock,” Lewin said. “But if you feel strongly about it, you’re going to have to look for a position somewhere else.”

What is a medical exemption? 

Medical exemptions are granted to people who have, or could have, a dangerous reaction to a vaccine due to an allergy or other existing medical condition. The Centers for Disease Control has made obtaining a medical exemption harder by removing the emergency use tag from the Pfizer vaccine and approving it for full use in those 16 and older, including women who are pregnant, in late August.

Experts say that a very small number of people qualify for medical exemptions from vaccines, but it is ultimately up to the employer to decide who is granted one, whether they qualify or not.

How are they evaluated? 

State and federal law allow employers to evaluate exemption requests for a variety of reasons not limited to the timing of the request—if it was submitted at an opportune time to get the employee out of the vaccine for secular reasons—and if their behavior is consistent with the religious teachings for which they’re seeking the exemption.

Established case law could allow for a vegan to oppose being vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccine because the vaccine was tested on animals. A person who is opposed to abortion and challenged the mandate on the grounds the vaccine was developed using fetal cells, which were grown in a lab from samples collected decades ago, could be asked questions about what other types of medications they use.

Other common medications including Tylenol and Motrin have used fetal cells in their development.

Employers also have to determine if providing a reasonable accommodation is feasible from a business operations side. If accommodating employees by reassigning them to a different position or remote work, or the cost of the accommodation would create a hardship for the employer and if the exemption poses a danger to other employees’ health and safety. If the city determines any of this to be true it can deny an exemption even if the person qualifies for one.

Have Long Beach employees sought exemptions? 

Joe Ambrosini, Long Beach’s director of Human Resources, said in an email last week that some city employees did request exemptions in response to the September memo but they have been put aside pending the outcome of union negotiations and the announcement of an effective date of the policy. He did not specify how many requests the city received or from which departments.

After the release of the memo last month, Ambrosini said it would be a “true mandate” that would have some consequences but the city has yet to determine what those will be and if they will include termination.

Where is Long Beach at in the process? 

The city announced its vaccine mandate in September and is negotiating with individual employee unions to reach a resolution, which could include an effective date and any penalties that could come from non-compliance, including termination.

Lewin said that when it comes to city employees, many of whom are unionized, it can become trickier. Lewin said there is a precedent set through previous labor negotiations, which likely didn’t address vaccinations. But the previous contracts did put in place other rules that have established the city’s ability to impose new ones, Lewin said.

“Any professional staff in a company has issues like this,” Lewin said. “If you’re the head of IT in Long Beach and you institute a new security check on your system and some people say ‘I don’t like that, it’s against my beliefs,’ and you start to permit the exemptions, you descend into chaos.”

He added that there could be a unique situation like the one that’s played out in the NBA in which the referees’ union agreed to a full mandate for its members while the players’ union has not.

The latter has left Brooklyn Nets star, Kyrie Irving, in jeopardy of having to sit out the season after the team said it would not let him participate until he could participate fully. Irving cannot practice or play in Brooklyn because of New York City COVID-19 restrictions for unvaccinated persons.

What are other cities doing? 

Los Angeles, which issued its mandate before Long Beach, could give its employees until mid-December to get vaccinated or obtain an exemption. In the interim, they could be required to pay for COVID-19 tests twice a week, which would not be able to be completed while they’re on the job. The city’s “last, best and final offer” still requires approval from the LA City Council.

The LA mandate followed one by Los Angeles County that required all county officials to be vaccinated by this month.

No effective date has been announced for Long Beach employees but it is not alone in requiring the mandate. The CSU system, which Cal State Long Beach is the flagship school, has required all employees and students on campus to be vaccinated since the start of the school year and Long Beach City College is considering a similar move this week.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.