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Tucson city workers required to get COVID shots by Aug. 24

City Council votes 6-1 to impose sanctions on gov't workers who do not get vaccinations

Employees of the City of Tucson will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before August 24, or face suspension without pay.

In a 6-1 vote — with Ward 4 Councilwomen Nikki Lee in dissent — the Tucson City Council and Mayor Regina Romero moved during an emergency meeting Friday to require all city employees to present proof they are vaccinated, or begin the process of becoming vaccinated against COVID-19 by the deadline. 

Some employees will be able to receive a medical or religious exemption.

About 79 percent of city employees said they are already vaccinated against COVID-19, according to an internal survey, said City Manager Mike Ortega in a memo to the Council, leaving about 1,000 employees unprotected by the vaccine. The study showed that 79 percent of the 3,300 respondents said they were vaccinated, but about 26 percent of the workforce didn't respond.

The city would wait to see if at least 750 of the remain unvaccinated employees present proof that they've been vaccinated against the disease, and if that doesn't happen, the city would begin mandating that employees get their first dose against COVID-19 no later than August 24. Employees could face suspensions of up to five days without pay.

Ortega said the city would also set up a "floating holiday" for city employees as an incentive, and restore up to 80 hours in pandemic relief for staffers, allowing people, including essential workers, to have time off to get their shots.

Earlier this week, the Pima Board of Supervisors considered but rejected a similar move.

In a 4-1 vote, the board rejected a proposal from Supervisor Matt Heinz to require vaccinations for county government workers, and they also rejected a move to require face-coverings in schools in a 3-2 vote.

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Mayor Regina Romero introduced the issue Friday by outlining the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic over the last several weeks, driven by the more virulent form of the disease known as the Delta variant. In Arizona, there was another 3,225 new cases of COVID-19 reported on Friday, following a consistent day-to-day ramp-up of the disease. The spike in cases is now at the level of cases were in early February,  when cases declined after a massive and deadly spike that peaked in January. Across Arizona nearly all the counties have hit "high" rates of community spread, including Pima County — which has 272 new reported infections Friday.

"You know, this has been 18 months of a global pandemic," Romero said. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were few tools for the city to use to protect families and citizens, except for mask and working from home, she said. Now, facing an "unfortunate surge in cases, again," the city has what she called an antidote, a "safe, free reliable vaccine."

"If this were a decision just about personal health it would one thing," Romero said, but people who are not vaccinated "unjustly expose" co-workers and children under the 12 to increased risk of COVID-19.

"This is not about individual liberty,"  Romero said. "But about protecting the rights of others to not be exposed to COVID-19 through no fault of their own."

"The city of Tucson, with me as the mayor of our great city, and as an employer, we have the legal obligation to provide a maintain a safe and healthy workplace for its employees," she said.

"We've all signed up for public service, and interface often with public," said Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, noting that other vaccinations are required to work for the city.

Ward 6 Councilman Steve Kozachik took a sharper line.  He pushed for a quicker mandate, calling the initial version offered by  Uhlich a "half-measure."

"We've acted decisively during this pandemic, but this isn't that," he said. "You don't negotiate with a deadly virus, you tamp it down," he said. "If left to me," Kozachik said, he'd pick a certain date and "terminate anyone who isn't vaccinated."

"We have children who cannot get vaccinations and they're filling hospitals right now," he said, adding that 97 percent of deaths are from unvaccinated people. "And the longer that we take to increase the vaccination rates, the more likely that variants are going to develop," he said.

Ortega apologized for the late meeting, saying that he'd prayed over the issue, and he called it a "defining moment for us, and our community."

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"I don't take mandates lightly," he said. "I don't take this one lightly."

Nevertheless, he supported the city mandate. Ortega said that Tucson Fire Chief Chuck Ryan and Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus both supported the mandate for city employees, which will include Tucson firefighters and Tucson police officers.

In his memo to the Council, Ortega noted that other large employers require vaccinations or face regularly testing, including significant chunks of the federal government, and companies like Google.

On July 20, the Arizona-based Banner Health network said it would require all of its 52,000 employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by November 1, and Tucson Medical Center followed suit on August 4, requiring vaccines for its employees by September 1.

The Council's move likely puts Tucson at odds with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey.

In April, Ducey signed an executive order banning so-called "vaccination passports." The order applied to business that have a government contract, and bars them from requiring customers to provide information on their vaccination status. However, the order allowed for hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities to ask about documentation of a visitor’s, patient’s, employee’s or resident’s vaccination status. Universities, child care centers, home schools and other schools are also exempt.

"The residents of our state should not be required by the government to share their private medical information," said Ducey in a press release about the executive order. "While we strongly recommend all Arizonans get the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s not mandated in our state — and it never will be. Vaccination is up to each individual, not the government."

Ortega said that the city had until September 29 to institute a vaccine mandate, because the state Legislature passed HB 2898 earlier this year, which preempts local authorities from mandating vaccines once it takes effect on that date. However, Republican lawmakers have said in a letter that the law is already in effect and has been since July 1.

If 750 new employees show proof of vaccination before the deadline of August 24, the policy will not go into place, Ortega said. If that goal is met, it would mean that 4,050 out of 4,500 of the city's employees are vaccinated.

"The policy of the city of Tucson is that all city employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible as a condition of continued employment, unless a medical exemption or reasonable accommodation for qualifying disability or sincerely held religious belief is approved," Ortega wrote.

"Accordingly, employees who have not applied for and/or been granted an available accommodation must submit proof that they have received either their first dose of an approved 2-dose or their single dose of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine no later than August 24, 2021."

"Failure to comply with the requirements of this policy and the time limits as described constitutes just cause for discipline; and any employee who fails to comply with this vaccination requirement will be disciplined with a suspension of eight days without pay," Ortega wrote.

He added that the city attorney had reviewed the measure.  

Ward 4 Councilmember Nikki Lee provided the sole dissent. She said that as the representative for the ward that includes Vail, she knew that some classrooms were shuttered because of outbreaks, but she worried about the "balance" of people who are "just making choices."

"It's just a big concern of mine personally, and from our constituency out here how we're going to be able to respond if we open the door further for some of our employees to walk out," Lee said. "I share deeply the concern for how we balance delivering core services with being responsible as an employer, and addressing public health."

She also worried that the mandate would not get the city to a needed vaccination rate of around 95 percent as outlined by Ortega. There may be "negative, unintended consequences" she said, added that if unvaccinated people leave,  or are suspended it will "fall on vaccinated staff." She also accepted that if enough staff members get sick, there will still be lapse in core services. "Pick your poison," she said.

Councilman Paul Cunningham said he struggled with the issue.

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"I don't want to force anyone to do anything they don't want to do," he said, adding that some people wanted to wait a year after the vaccine was available before taking it. While medical professionals began receiving COVID-19 vaccines in mid-December, testing for the third phase of Pfizer's vaccine began in July 2020 with around 43,000 participants.

"How many people will leave after a 5-day suspension?" Cunningham asked. "That won't move the needle, and create a lot of ill will. But maybe if you don't want to be a team player, maybe we don't want you anyway."

"We have thread a needle here, I don't know if there's a right answer here," he said.

Lane Santa Cruz, the councilwoman for Ward 1, said that the decision comes in the midst of a "politically divisive moment."

City employees should be able to get their first dose, Ortega said, added that the city had reached out to the county to find, and even set up "pop-up" distribution sites for city employees. He added that there are distribution sites that open during the weekends, as well as private vendors and pharmacies.

The "vaccine is free and readily available through Pima County," Romero said. City employees will have days to "ponder what their decision is going to be."

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1 comment on this story

Aug 14, 2021, 7:58 am
- +

What’s next? Perhaps a mandate that all female city workers must take contraceptives so that we save money on maternity benefits? This is a slippery slope

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Mayor Regina Romero during an event at the Sunlink maintenance yard Thursday.