Long Beach will impose a COVID-19 vaccination mandate on all city employees starting next month, the city manager’s office announced yesterday.

While the new policy allows for medical, religious and personal exemptions, it also includes disciplinary actions against those who refuse to get vaccinated and aren’t granted an exemption. The penalties include suspension of up to six months for refusal to comply and possible separation or even “termination” if non-compliance continues after that period of suspension, according to the new policy.

Epidemiologists have been saying for months that an employee vaccine mandate is a critical public health measure.

“Citizens deserve to know that if they call 911, the men and women responding to the call are vaccinated,” said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at UC Irvine, back in January. “Vaccinated people are less likely to spread the virus.”

Beginning Monday, June 6, all city employees must do one of the following, according to a May 23 memo from Joe Ambrosini, the city’s Director of Human Resources:

  • Provide proof that they’ve received either the one-dose COVID-19 vaccine regimen or the first dose of a two-dose regimen;
  • Or, submit a request for accommodation (either personal, medical or religious).

Those who opt to select the two-dose vaccination regimen must show proof of the second dose by Friday, July 8, according to Ambrosini’s memo.

Getting either the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines meets the current definition of being “fully vaccinated,” according to the state Department of Health. Should that change, and the state decide that one or more booster shots will be required to be “fully vaccinated,” the city may change the vaccination requirements outlined in their new mandate, according to Ambrosini’s memo.

Anyone granted the personal exemption option must pay for weekly COVID-19 testing (rapid antigen/PCR), which can be done during city work hours, with the cost of the testing deducted from the employee’s paycheck, according to Ambrosini’s memo. Those receiving medical or religious exemptions will still be subject to weekly COVID-19 testing, but at city expense, according to the memo.

All unvaccinated city employees must continue to wear a mask of at least medical or surgical grade while at work under this new policy, according to memo. Employees not doing so are subject to disciplinary measures, up to and including termination, according to the policy.

Employees found not in compliance with the vaccination mandate will be subject to a wide range of disciplinary measures, including up to six months of suspension and then possible separation or even termination should non-compliance continue, according to the city.

In June 2021, the city began asking employees to show if they were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. If they were, they no longer had to wear a face-covering at work. When this policy was discontinued two months later, 72% of city employees were fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, according to Ambrosini’s memo.

Since then, the city has required all city employees who were not fully vaccinated or did not disclose proof of their vaccination status to undertake weekly COVID-19 testing, according to the memo. This has led to 86% of all city workers being fully vaccinated today, according to the city.

This is up slightly from the city’s previous reporting that 84% of all employees were vaccinated, as of December 2021.

Today, 20 of the city’s 23 departments show a vaccination rate of 80% or better, according to the latest figures released by the city manager’s office. The other three are Water (79% vaccinated), the Emergency Communications and Operations Center (77%) and the Police Department (70%).

Two city departments that showed the lowest vaccination percentages also showed minor gains. The Fire Department currently has an 81% vaccination rate, up from 78% in December, while the Police Department’s current rate is up from 68% in December.

City officials had been negotiating with a dozen labor associations representing municipal workers since late September 2021 on a vaccine mandate, according to Ambrosini’s memo.

Kevin Lee, a spokesperson for the city, said that implementing a policy like this, which is “extremely detailed and includes consequences for employees that remain noncompliant following the June 6th effective date,” required additional time to complete negotiations with various labor organizations.

“We worked through the issues together,” said Rex Pritchard, president of the Long Beach firefighter union. According to Pritchard, the contested issues mainly concerned the process of implementing the policy, like detailing how employees would go about getting an exemption and how the city would protect confidential information.

“I thought we had a good process,” said Pritchard. “I commend the city manager and his team. I’m pleased with how the city went about it.”

Rich Chambers, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Association, said his organization accepts the new mandate.

“It’s not perfect but we are glad staffing will not be affected, particularly during a time when public safety is a top priority for our community,” he said.

The city of Los Angeles passed an employee vaccination mandate back in December 2021, and terminated a few dozen employees since then, including 12 fire employees, according to the LA Times.

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Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.