Hundreds of San Diego City workers get vaccine exemptions, some still face termination
The city of San Diego announced a vaccine mandate for employees last year, and this week hundreds of city workers are having medical or religious exemptions granted.
"It’s great news," said Jesse Conner, San Diego City Firefighters Association president.
Conner said the city told union workers exemptions would be allowed during negotiations about the vaccine mandate, but details were not clear. The discussion put some employees in tough spots and it is why news about the exemptions is welcomed.
"Relief for a lot of those folks who thought that they might be out of a job," Conner said. "Because when you’re a firefighter for 15 years and have a family and children relying on you, have a mortgage payment and all those other bills and then you’re faced with the possibility that you’ll lose your career, that’s very stressful."
Conner noted the department encouraged vaccinations and so far none of their members are facing termination for non-compliance.
Seven hundred ninety city employees are being notified this week that their religious and medical exemptions have been approved. Fifteen requests were denied and there are still 200 people waiting to hear back.
The city said people were denied because the information in their request for an exemption could not be verified or lacked documentation.
"I think it’s a positive sign — a lot of employees were concerned," American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 127 president Rodney Fowler said.
Folwer said he was not sure until seeing the city's announcement Monday that religious exemptions would be allowed at all.
"We didn't just want to have a situation where employees are told to go through a process that the city was never going to consider seriously," he said. "So I don't know what prompted the change of fortune or the reversal."
San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said it was plan all along to allow medical and religious exemptions.
"The question was how are we going to do it," he said.
In a statement, City of San Diego spokesperson Nicole Darling explained how religious exemptions were decided,
"All information provided by employees in conjunction with and in support of their requests was reviewed and evaluated in accordance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, and the guidance of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing pertaining to religious accommodations," Darling said.
She added the city did not question the validity of employees' religious beliefs.
The city mandate has driven the city’s employee vaccination rate up.
"We went from 69% of our employees being vaccinated to over 90%," Gloria said. "What that means is that our employees are safer and their coworkers are safer."
Some city employees have left their jobs because of the mandate and there are at least 30 facing termination for noncompliance. Those facing termination have not said if they are vaccinated or submitted any exemption requests or documentation.
"I don't want to lose any employee over this," Gloria said. "I want folks to get vaccinated and if not, I want them to follow the protocols we’ve put in place to protect them and their coworkers. We may lose some folks, but the truth is we’ve already lost people to COVID."
The city has faced legal challenges over its vaccination mandate. Those who have gotten medical or religious exemptions will need to be tested for COVID-19 once a week or face termination.