Unvaccinated city employees may now face the decision to get a COVID-19 vaccine or be suspended from their jobs, Tucson City Council announced at an emergency meeting Friday night.
In a 6-1 vote, the council decided to make vaccines mandatory. Vice Mayor Nikki Lee was the sole dissenting vote.
That means at least 1,000 unvaccinated city workers could be suspended for five days without pay if they don’t follow the vaccine mandate.
“This is not about individual liberty. It is about protecting the health and the rights of others to not be unnecessarily exposed to COVID-19 through no fault of their own,” Mayor Regina Romero said. “The city of Tucson, and 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.”
City Manager Michael Ortega estimates at least 1,000 of the city’s 4,500 employees are unvaccinated based on a survey sent out the first week of August. The results showed 79% of 3,300 respondents reported being vaccinated. But about 26% of the workforce didn’t respond, and vaccination status wasn’t verified among those who did.
The mandate won’t go into effect if 750 unvaccinated employees submit proof of at least their first vaccination by Aug. 20. If that doesn’t happen, Ortega’s new administrative directive and the City Council’s ordinance will require all unvaccinated employees to provide proof of at least their first vaccine dose by Aug. 24 or face a five-day suspension.
If an employee qualifies for exemption from the policy because of a disability or a sincerely held religious belief, they’re responsible for submitting an accommodation request to the city’s human resources department by Aug. 24.
The new measure comes as COVID-19 cases in Pima County more than quadrupled from the first week of July to the first week of August, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. The department has reported 1,741 cases in the county for the first week of August alone, while the county moved from “substantial” to “high” COVID-19 transmission this week.
Steve Kozachik, Ward 6 councilman, said the five-day suspension is “simply nibbling around the edges” of addressing the need for vaccinations, and that the ordinance should hold that city employees must be vaccinated by Sept. 25 or “forfeit their employment.”
“We’ve acted decisively throughout this pandemic, and this ordinance as written I don’t believe is that,” he said. “We have children who cannot get vaccinations and they’re filling hospitals right now; 97% of the deaths are from unvaccinated people, and the longer that we take to increase the vaccination rates, the more likely it’s going to be that variants are going to develop.”
Lee, the only no vote, expressed concerns about employees leaving because of the mandate, as well as the workload from suspended unvaccinated employees falling into the lap of vaccinated employees.
“It’s just a big concern of mine personally and from our constituency out here about how we’re going to be able to respond if we open the door further for some of our employees to walk out,” she said. “I share, deeply, that concern for how we balance delivering core services with being responsible as an employer and addressing public health.”
In addition to the five-day suspension, unvaccinated employees could be subject to weekly testing requirements, more stringent mask-wearing guidelines, travel restrictions and eligibility restrictions for certain assignments.
The ordinance also authorizes Ortega to look into restructuring the city’s health insurance provisions to raise premiums for unvaccinated employees.
On the other hand, vaccinated employees could be rewarded with a floating holiday to take a day off and restoration of 80 hours of pandemic leave (while deducting the hours already used in the previous 80-hour leave from last year).
The city is racing the clock to impose a vaccination requirement, as a state law that prohibits local jurisdictions from mandating vaccinations goes into effect on Sept. 29.
On Tuesday, Pima County’s Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to not mandate that county employees get vaccinated, largely because of that state law.
Supervisors also turned down a motion to mandate masks in K-12 schools in a 3-2 vote. Romero urged the board to reverse that decision, adding, “When the health of our children is at stake, sometimes we have no choice but to make difficult decisions.”
The City Council will determine if it will take addition disciplinary action against unvaccinated employees — including further suspension or possible termination — at its next meeting in September. While the next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 9, this could change based on attendance issues.
Ortega, who’s spent the last week navigating the various legal and administrative challenges of implementing a vaccine mandate, said his recommendation to mayor and council was not an easy one to make.
“I’ve labored many, many hours through the various consequences and prayed over this, because it is a defining moment for us and our community,” he said. “I don’t take mandates of any sort of lightly, I certainly don’t take this one lightly.”
Contact reporter Nicole Ludden at firstname.lastname@example.org