This article was originally published in the Burbank Leader on Aug. 14
The Burbank City Council decided this week to consider requiring municipal employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or undergo regular coronavirus testing.
The council’s unanimous Tuesday decision made no immediate additions to city policy, only directing staff members to bring back options for a potential requirement at a future meeting. If approved, the rule — which would follow somewhat similar announcements in Los Angeles County and Pasadena — must include accommodations for city workers who do not get vaccinated for medical or religious reasons.
Vice Mayor Jess Talamantes, who requested the agenda item in late July, said he felt the measure would help safeguard Burbank’s roughly 1,400 municipal workers — about 72% of whom have reported being vaccinated as of Aug. 4, according to a staff report.
We’re supposed to not only try to protect our residents, we have to protect our employees,” Talamantes said.
The vice mayor emphasized that he doesn’t want to force workers to get the vaccine, a stance that is softer than some jurisdictions have taken. Once L.A. County’s vaccine mandates for its employees go into effect, only county workers who have medical or religious exemptions will be able to choose to frequently take COVID-19 tests instead of being inoculated.
Until city department officials return with options for the potential policy, it’s hard to say what one could look like. For example, as Burbank’s Director of Management Services Betsy McClinton told council members, they would need to decide when the rule would go into effect. Some governments await the Food and Drug Administration’s final authorization of the vaccines, saying they’ll require their workers to get the vaccine within 30 or 60 days of the agency’s approval.
The New York Times recently reported that the FDA’s unofficial deadline to give full authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is Labor Day, though the agency has not publicly given an estimate as to when that could occur.
Another unknown is how the city’s five labor groups, such as the police and firefighter unions and the Burbank City Employees Association, would respond to the municipality’s new policy if the City Council passes it. McClinton explained that although recent precedent suggests that the city’s leaders don’t have to consult its workers’ unions on vaccination requirements, they do have to meet with labor groups on those requirements’ effects on employees — for instance, to decide who will pay for coronavirus tests and how often testing is mandated.
Talamantes acknowledged that some groups have pushed back against vaccination requirements elsewhere, but insisted a policy would be good for the city’s staff.
“I hope we are thinking a little different here, and I hope our labor negotiations [in which] we have to meet and confer are more receptive to the idea of protecting each other,” he said.
Other council members, such as Mayor Bob Frutos and Councilman Konstantine Anthony, appeared wary of the potential requirement, emphasizing what they said was the need to provide workers with an alternative to vaccination.
“I think it’s an individual, personal choice,” Frutos said, pointing out that all five council members, and a large majority of municipal employees, have said they have received the vaccine.
Next to the council and its support staff, whose members all reported being vaccinated, the Library Services Department reported the second-highest vaccination rate among all city agencies at about 95% as of Aug. 4. The same surveys showed the Parks and Recreation and Management Services departments at rates of roughly 84% and 85%, respectively.
Conversely, the City Treasurer’s Office had the lowest rate at 40%, followed by the Burbank Police Department at 58%.
The city government isn’t the only Burbank entity mulling vaccination requirements. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced this week that private and public California school employees must prove they are vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. That policy, the first of its kind in any state, requires schools to reach full compliance by Oct. 15.
The Burbank Unified School District is developing a more stringent policy that would require employees, except for those with medical or religious exemptions, to get the vaccine within 60 days of the FDA’s approval of the shots.