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39 Tucson city workers being fired for not complying with COVID shot mandate

90% of city workers fully vaccinated, 10% in medical or religious loophole

The city of Tucson is beginning the process of firing 11 permanent employees who refused to get their COVID-19 vaccinations or couldn’t come up with a medical exemption or religious accommodation.

Another 28 temporary workers will no longer be eligible to be on the city payroll because they also failed to comply with the mandate.

The 11 permanent workers due to be terminated are scattered across various city agencies, with one member each in the Police and Fire departments, and three in the Environmental Services Department.

The City Council passed a vaccine mandate in mid-October, requiring city government employees to be vaccinated by a Dec. 1 deadline. City Manager Michael Ortega told Mayor Regina Romero and members of the Council that the terminations will not affect the city’s ability to perform services.

About 10 percent of city workers have been granted an accommodation or exemption from the policy, but 90 percent are fully vaccinated, data from Ortega's office shows.

The unvaccinated city government workers now face a civil service process that will last several days and ultimately end in their termination by Dec. 17, according to a memo by Ortega that outlines the discipline process. Notices of intent to terminate were to be served on Wednesday and Thursday to those employees.

The city’s “non-permanent” employees, which might include lifeguards or general office workers, will not have to go through the same process. Instead, the 28 unvaccinated temporary workers won’t be scheduled to work for the city of Tucson again.

The 28 temporary staffers failed to provide proof they had gotten their shots, but Lane Mandle, Ortega's chief of staff, said that some, like lifeguards, may simply have not reported their status because they worked for the city seasonally. Some of the 28 may have been vaccinated, she said.

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Neither the 11 permanent employees nor the 28 temporary employees will be eligible for rehire, though, Mandle said.

The department with the most non-compliant employees was the Environmental and General Services Department, with three unvaccinated permanent employees who will lose their jobs. The department handles trash collection, recycling and waste disposal services for Tucson.

The Business Services Department, which handles the city’s finances, budget and general organization, has two employees facing termination for not complying with the mandate.

The Tucson City Courts, Police Department, Public Safety Communications (which includes 911 dispatchers), Fire Department, Parks and Recreation and Tucson Water are all losing one permanent employee each for non-compliance. Both the Police and Fire Department staffers were sworn employees.

By the Dec. 1 deadline, 3,513 of the city’s 3,923 permanent employees were fully vaccinated, which is a 90 percent vaccination rate, and none were partially vaccinated. There were 108 employees, or 3 percent, who received a medical exemption and 241, or 6 percent, who received a religious accommodation. There were 50 employees who received both an exemption and an accommodation.

Most of the medical exemptions and religious accommodations came from the Police and Fire departments. Both departments had 36 medical exemptions. TFD had 81 religious accommodations, and TPD had 69. They had 27 and 19 workers who received both an exemption and accommodation, respectively.

The city first passed a vaccine mandate in August that required vaccination by Oct. 5, but more than 300 had “chosen to be in non-compliance,” according to an memo by Ortega from Oct. 19. Those employees were served with a five-day suspension, but Ortega recommended the Council take further steps to encourage vaccinations.

The city temporarily stopped enforcing the mandate in early Sept. after state Attorney General Mark Brnovich argued that the city policy was in violation of a state law that blocks local governments from mandating vaccines.

At the time of the first vaccine deadline, police and fire employees made up more than two-thirds of city employees who had not been vaccinated. As of last Wednesday, TFD had the lowest vaccination rate among city agencies, with just 76 percent of employees fully vaccinated, and TPD had a vaccination rate of 86 percent.

Those numbers climbed by 2 percent over the last week, to 78 and 88 percent.

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The total vaccination and compliance rate of city employees had also increased in the last few weeks leading up to the December deadline. On Nov. 22, 86 employees had not complied with the mandate, but 95 percent of employees were compliant. In a Nov. 15 memo, Ortega had reported that 156 were non-compliant.

At the deadline, just 0.3 percent of permanent employee had not gotten their shots or provided proof of a medical or religious exemption.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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