San Jose firefighter and police unions are pushing back on the plan to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations for city employees by the end of the month, warning the policy might lead to worker shortages.
“Our message has been consistent through all of this process,” Matt Tuttle, president of San Jose Firefighters Local 230, told San José Spotlight. “While we strongly encourage all of our members to be vaccinated, we are against a vaccine mandate. We do not believe anyone should be terminated over the vaccine.”
The city announced Wednesday it will enforce a vaccine mandate by Sept. 30, when employees can no longer submit weekly COVID tests instead of vaccination proof. Workers can request medical or religious exemption. Those who refuse to get vaccinated without an approved exemption or balk at the requirement could face punishments up to termination, the city’s policy reads.
At least one other firefighter union in the Bay Area is opposed to similar mandates in neighboring cities. Alameda County Firefighters Local 55 released a statement against a vaccination mandate in mid-August in solidarity with the firefighter union in Sacramento. Sacramento delayed implementing its own vaccine mandate as the city continues to bargain with labor unions.
Details of how San Jose’s COVID-19 vaccine policy will be enforced have yet to be worked out, city spokesperson Carolina Camarena told San José Spotlight. According to Camarena, 89% of city workers are fully vaccinated as of Friday. The city employs roughly 7,500 workers.
“We will continue to meet and listen to (the unions’) concerns,” she said, adding that the current proposal already reflects changes requested by the unions, such as including suspension as a potential disciplinary action and not just termination.
Municipal Employees’ Federation 101 President Steve Solorio, representing the city’s largest union of approximately 3,200 members, told San José Spotlight earlier this week that the union will not challenge the policy.
But firefighters and police officers say they want options.
Both Firefighters Local 230 and the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, with approximately 650 and 1,150 members respectively, are pushing for a policy that allows weekly testing in place of vaccination proof. Tuttle said it’s similar to a model that CalFire Local 2881, the largest fire union in the state, is following. The union did not respond to a request for comment.
While Tuttle said 90% of the San Jose Fire Department is vaccinated, he worries the new city policy will decimate the workforce during the ongoing fire season.
“We need every firefighter that we possibly can to still fight wildfires, still respond to calls in our own city and still mitigate emergencies,” Tuttle said. “We don’t want to see a single firefighter walk off the job over this mandate.”
The police union is still in talks with the city over its proposal to keep testing as an option, spokesperson Tom Saggau said.
“We stand by our proposal,” Saggau told San José Spotlight. “We believe that that’s the correct course of action, we think it’s fair and we think it’s reasonable.”
The San Jose Police Department’s vaccination rate is trending in “the right direction,” Saggau said. City officials estimate 82% of sworn officers are vaccinated as of Friday. According to SJPD, 16% of the police force has not reported their vaccination status.
Still, union leaders said some members are ready to walk off the job if the city enforces the vaccine mandate. According to a news report, as many as 123 police officers and other SJPD employees have formed a group on Telegram to oppose the vaccine mandate.
For a police force that is already understaffed like SJPD, suspension and termination over the vaccine requirement will be a blow to the department, Saggau said. It takes months, if not years, to train and hire new officers, he added.
“You’re able to replace a clerk or a secretary or a lot of positions within the city if you terminate those folks,” he said. “You can’t do that with police officers. We certainly hope the city has thought through those implications.”