Long Beach eliminates testing substitute, will require COVID-19 vaccines for all city employees

With the percentage of city employees vaccinated against COVID-19 lower than the general public—and the costs of regular testing mounting—the city will move to require vaccination among all employees by a deadline yet to be determined, a letter from the city manager said.

Though exemptions will be made for religious and medical reasons, weekly testing for COVID-19 will no longer be allowed as a substitute for vaccination against the virus, City Manager Tom Modica wrote in a letter to workers on Wednesday.

“We have an obligation to keep the public safe, which we cannot do if we as an overall organization have a lower vaccination rate than our surrounding community,” Modica wrote.

After requiring workers to provide proof they are vaccinated rather than self-attestation, the city found this month that 73% of the workforce is vaccinated compared to 79.1% of those eligible in the general public.

The numbers are starkly lower for police and fire officials, who Modica noted have the most interaction with the public.

Just 57% of all police employees are vaccinated, and 51% of sworn officers have received the vaccine. Among fire, 59% of all workers are vaccinated, including 60% of the sworn workforce.

And in the fire department, fewer are vaccinated than said they were in July: 66% “self-attested” that they were vaccinated two months ago, but only 59% provided proof that this is true.

Rex Pritchard, president of the Long Beach Fire Fighters union, said that the organization’s stance hasn’t changed since the first vaccination policy was put in place by the city in July but he’s hoping for an open-minded negotiation process.

“We don’t believe in a vaccinate or terminate model,” Pritchard said. “We believe in vaccinate and accommodate.”

Pritchard pointed to other jurisdictions including the California State University that have made exceptions for unvaccinated employees. They typically allow for an unvaccinated employee to wear an N-95 mask in addition to being tested regularly, often at the employer’s expense.

He added that he didn’t anticipate a lawsuit coming from the department in response to the city’s policy. Members of both the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Fire Department filed lawsuits this month against LA for its vaccination requirement policy.

“I think it’s settled law and recent court decisions in other parts of the country reaffirmed the right for a city to mandate vaccinations,” Pritchard said.

In a statement, Long Beach Police Officers Association President Rich Chambers said the organization does not believe in a vaccine mandate adding that getting a vaccine should be a decision an individual makes in consultation with a doctor or clergy. Chambers said the POA would use the meet and confer process to oppose any kind of mandate and any potential disciplinary actions against unvaccinated employees.

“The LBPOA has not, and will not, agree to a vaccination policy that uses suspension or termination as a means of bullying our members into compliance,” Chambers said.

In late July, the city announced that it would require either vaccination or testing among its workforce as COVID-19 infections were rising. However the cost of testing workers weekly is about $110,000, or nearly $5.7 million a year—a cost that insurers have said they will not cover, Modica said.

“The financial burden would be on top of the $38 million structural deficit we will need to address next year,” he wrote.

A deadline for workers will be determined through the “meet and confer” process with labor unions that represent the various employees, the city manager said.

Joe Ambrosini, the city’s director of Human Resources, said there is not a defined window for the negotiations to take place but the city wanted to get the process started before the holiday season when experts are predicting there could be another surge of COVID-19 cases.

Ambrosini said that the city is hoping to have a ramp-up process that sees employees get vaccinated while discussions are being held with labor groups but it’s likely that unvaccinated workers would have an additional compliance window to get vaccinated after the meet and confer process ends.

At that point, employees would likely face discipline that could range from unpaid leave, suspensions or even termination.

“It’s a true mandate and a true requirement and you will have to do that or there will be some consequences,” Ambrosini said.

Other cities that have enacted this mandate—including Los Angeles, San Diego and New York—are seeing similar low rates of vaccination among public safety personnel.

As of Sept. 3, just 47% of the Los Angeles Police Department’s 12,000 employees are fully vaccinated, compared with 68% of all eligible residents.

Since enacting its mandate, the LAPD has been beset by lawsuits and 2,600 requests among personnel for medical or religious exemptions, something the head of the police commission this week called “extremely dubious.”

Ambrosini said that the city would follow established federal and state laws when weighing requests for exemptions from being vaccinated. He said it is a fairly involved process that involves communication with the employee to try to understand their position while also trying to find ways to work around it. But the final determination will be based on existing guidelines.

“It’s not going to be a Long Beach process,” Ambrosini said. “We’re going to follow that strict legal process.”

[Editors note: The story has been updated with a comment from Long Beach Police Officers Association President Rich Chambers.]

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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