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Tucson City Council: Employees unvaccinated by Dec. 1 face termination
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Tucson City Council: Employees unvaccinated by Dec. 1 face termination

Tucson City Council approved a plan that would terminate city employees who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 1.

City employees not vaccinated by Dec. 1 will face termination, the Tucson City Council decided in a 4-3 vote Tuesday.

City Manager Michael Ortega recommended the more than 300 unvaccinated city employees, who are already subject to five-day suspensions, be subject to termination if they fail to get vaccinated by Dec. 1.

Tucson City Manager Michael Ortega

Those who don’t get vaccinated by the deadline will be served with a notice of intent to terminate by Dec. 3 and have a pre-discharge meeting with their supervisor Dec. 10. That supervisor will make the final decision on the employee’s termination by Dec. 17.

The direction from mayor and council allows Ortega to begin preparations, including bringing in “additional resources” in the human resources department and recruiting to fill the vacancies left by those who remain unvaccinated in December.

“If we were to attempt to do all this by Dec. 1, that would be a pretty tall order for us to implement,” Ortega said. “I think that the first order of business is for me is to get the logistics plan and get the continuity of operations plan in place. And then we will move toward the potential separation and termination.”

The City Council adopted a vaccine mandate for the city’s more than 4,000-member workforce on Aug. 13. Unvaccinated employees were subject to a five-day suspension, but enforcement of the mandate ceased on Sept. 7 after Attorney General Mark Brnovich said the policy was a violation of a state law that bars local governments from mandating vaccines.

But the implementation of those suspensions is back in place after a Maricopa County Superior Court judge struck down the law Brnovich claimed the city violated. That decision is pending review in the Arizona Supreme Court.

At its Oct. 5 meeting, the council directed Ortega to return with plans for additional consequences for employees remaining unvaccinated, “up to and including termination.”

Ortega estimates 300 employees are subject to five-day suspensions. Of those, 73 failed to get vaccinated by the original Aug. 24 deadline and didn’t submit an exemption request, and about 50 didn’t submit a form to prove their vaccination status.

The city received 627 of both types of requests and granted 103 medical exemptions and 211 religious accommodations. Employees who were notified their requests were denied had until Oct. 5 to get the vaccine, but 180 employees didn’t meet the deadline.

Ortega has directed the city’s department directors to begin scheduling out the five-day suspensions to be served before Dec. 31.

The close vote in the council reflected members’ differing opinions. Council members Paul Cunningham, Richard Fimbres and Nikki Lee — who voted against the motion — expressed concern about the appeal process for city employees whose exemption request from the mandate was denied, as well as a loss of core services if unvaccinated employees are terminated.

“I just have very serious concerns with our current vacancies in some of these departments, and the difficulty in filling these positions paired with the potential loss of staff, what this is going to do to the residents and the services that we’re able to deliver,” Lee said. “I don’t feel like we have enough of that picture in front of us to make an informed decision today on moving forward with saying, you know, we need to go down a termination path.”

While Mayor Regina Romero acknowledged some council members’ concerns, the choice, for her, was clear.

“I hear loud and clear from (Lee) that she is concerned about the services that we can provide to our community, it is a difficult conversation to have,” she said. “But really, if you think about it based on science, and what science says, it really is not difficult, right? People that are vaccinated have less of an opportunity to contract COVID and the delta variant.”

Cunningham weighed both sides of the issue, but brought up concerns about “writing pink slips during the holiday season.”

Councilman Steve Kozachik, who’s been a longtime proponent of the city’s vaccine mandate, said “As far as the timing before the holidays, it’s also right before the holidays for people who might wind up contracting COVID because of some of the unvaccinated people who get it. So let’s remember that there is another side to this.”

Ortega said he will address concerns brought up by Lee by providing the council reports on the process of reviews for accommodation and exemption requests, how core services will continue, how discipline will be managed and how the city’s vaccine policy will abide to federal standards.

Contact reporter Nicole Ludden at nludden@tucson.com


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Nicole joined the Star in 2021. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at ASU’s Cronkite school in 2020 and has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, AC Press and Arizona Press Club.

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