Officials of one of the city’s largest and most influential labor unions are again challenging Mayor Todd Gloria’s order from last summer that all city employees must get vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19.
A lawyer for the Municipal Employees Association, which represents thousands of white-collar workers, told members in an email blast Thursday that city officials have changed their position and failed to prepare for the impacts of the mayor’s decision last August.
Attorney Ann Smith said that prior to a bargaining session this week, the city insisted that employees who refused to get vaccinated would be recorded as guilty of misconduct, meaning they would not be eligible for rehiring if they later receive the vaccine.
But during the discussion Wednesday, in response to strenuous objection from the labor union, the city changed its position and said people who were terminated for non-compliance would be eligible to return to city employment once they were vaccinated — or if the mandate were rescinded, she said.
Smith also provided members an update outlining the union’s latest positions to the city’s negotiating team. Negotiations are ongoing, she said, and she expects city officials to update the City Council on the vaccination mandate during a closed-session meeting next week.
“The city aspires to implement this mandate to all employees — represented and unrepresented — in a manner that is equitable, consistent and transparent, but the city is not structured to deliver on this intention and this mandate will cause more disruption, mischief and anger,” she wrote.
A spokeswoman for the mayor defended the vaccination mandate, saying the city has a responsibility to protect its employees — and the public. She also noted that more discussions with city unions are pending.
“We are still in the meet-and-confer process with our recognized employee organizations on how we will manage unvaccinated employees,” Press Secretary Courtney Pittam said by email.
Officials notified all 11,000 city workers in August that the mandate was being imposed, becoming the first major government agency in the region to require vaccination to be employed.
“Due to the ongoing COVID-19 public health crisis, and in light of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pfizer vaccine on Aug. 23, 2021, the city of San Diego will now be requiring all city employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of continued employment,” the city said in an email to its workforce.
In the meantime, city officials have been negotiating with union leaders over how to implement the policy. Some members of the San Diego Police Officers Association, among other municipal workers, have resisted the mayor’s order.
Smith told Municipal Employees Association members that the city has every right to require mandates on any new hires, but the terms of implementing it and applying the rules to long-time employees is more complicated.
For example, the city is not requiring contractors — or even members of the public — to be fully vaccinated before entering city buildings to perform work or avail themselves of city services, Smith noted.
Also, the city has not studied the impact the mandate would have on existing workers, such as departments with smaller staffs and increased vacancies or the toll on employees who remain in service under more difficult working conditions, the message to union members said.
“What service-level cuts will be acceptable in 911 and fire dispatch?” Smith asked. “What will the new wait time be for an emergency call to be answered by a dispatcher doing their very best work under the circumstances? What about impacts on service levels in the delivery of safe drinking water or in meeting goals in the Pure Water program?”
The mandate order from Gloria in August appears to have spurred some employees to get vaccinated.
In late August, when the initial order was announced, about 65 percent of city workers had received vaccinations. By late September, when the mandate was delayed to December, about 69 percent of city employees reported having been vaccinated.
Smith said in her e-blast that more than 80 percent of union members have already been vaccinated.
“MEA is not debating or denying science; nor is MEA disagreeing with the city’s determination that being vaccinated is the best protection against serious illness from COVID-19 and the on-going Delta variant which might lead to hospitalization,” she wrote.
But, she said, the reasons people choose not to be vaccinated are varied — and often are dismissed by others who promote the vaccine. The concerns need to be addressed through negotiation, Smith said.
“The meet-and-confer process is designed to promote communication and a full exchange of ideas,” she told union members. “MEA takes its representational responsibility very seriously on behalf of those in its bargaining units who are already fully vaccinated (over 80 percent) and on behalf of those who aren’t.”