First published in the Sept. 18 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Burbank city employees will soon have to choose between submitting to regular COVID-19 testing or getting the vaccine, with new hires required to be vaccinated.
The City Council voted 3-1 to implement the policy during its Tuesday meeting. When the requirement begins, tentatively on Oct. 11 but potentially later, municipal workers will have to undergo weekly testing for COVID-19. Those tests will be provided free of charge and during work hours, and employees who show proof of vaccination are exempt from the requirement.
The requirement for prospective employees to be vaccinated in order to be hired is a new addition to the policy, which City Council members first discussed about a month ago. The rule allows exemptions for those with valid religious beliefs or medical conditions.
Burbank Fire Department personnel are excluded from the local policy, falling instead under the Los Angeles County health order that requires such workers to get their final vaccine dose by Sept. 30.
City Council members passed the policy after an intense discussion, though even some who voted for it indicated they preferred another approach to the one approved. Vice Mayor Jess Talamantes, who initially requested the item, suggested that the discussion be pushed by 30 days to give time for city staff members to research other cities’ approaches. Though supported by Mayor Bob Frutos’ vote, the motion failed.
Councilman Nick Schultz advocated for a stricter policy, saying he was worried that the testing requirement might not catch pre-symptomatic infections, and pointing out that it doesn’t include contract workers.
“It offers a false sense of security,” he said. “What we really need to do is to require our city employees and especially our first responders to be vaccinated. Anything short of that requirement fails to adequately protect our community, in my humble opinion.”
About 370 city employees have reported not being vaccinated or have declined to provide their vaccination status as of this week, management services director Betsy McClinton told the council. More than 73% of city employees have reported being vaccinated, according to data provided by a spokeswoman. The departments with the lowest vaccination rates are the city treasurer’s department, at 40%, and the police department, at about 58%.
McClinton also said the labor groups that represent the city’s employees have been “receptive” to the proposed policy, though that originally did not include a stricter requirement for new hires.
Schultz’s fellow council members seemed disinclined to share his hardline approach. Councilwoman Sharon Springer said she supported requiring new hires to be vaccinated, but also wanted to provide current employees a choice.
“I think the choice is important, because their reasons for not doing it are pretty compelling,” she added.
A handful of community members, including a few city employees, provided their reasons for opposing any sort of vaccine policy during the meeting’s public comment period. Most insisted that individuals should be allowed to make their own medical decisions, though some expressed doubt about the safety of the vaccines or claimed they don’t prevent infection.
“I’m a grown man. I make my own health decisions and do not need you to suggest or mandate them for me,” William Smith told council members during public comment. “I ask that you treat each employee’s beliefs and decisions with honor and respect.”
Public health agencies and experts have overwhelmingly agreed that scientific evidence shows the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective against the disease. While “breakthrough” infections in vaccinated persons are increasing as the vaccination rate rises, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study showed that unvaccinated people in L.A. County are about 29 times more likely to be hospitalized with the coronavirus than people who are fully vaccinated, and roughly five times more likely to be infected with COVID-19.
Council members Konstantine Anthony, Springer and Schultz said they didn’t want to delay a decision on the vaccine policy, with Anthony worrying that not acting soon would potentially leave workers vulnerable to an outbreak. He ultimately made a successful motion to adopt the vaccination and testing requirement, adding a provision that requires new hires to be inoculated. Current employees couldn’t have known they’d be required to get the shot, Anthony argued, but potential workers looking for a city position during the pandemic can.
Talamantes voted against the proposal, agreeing with Frutos — who abstained — that the council needed a more complete policy that addressed unknowns regarding contract workers, commission members and other subjects, which city staff members warned would take time to develop. The topic is an emotional one, Frutos noted, reminding council members that his mother died from COVID-19.
“But,” he added, “there are so many moving variables that I’d rather wait the 30 days and get all the information and really get a good policy, because everything is still fluid.”
City staff members will develop a policy regarding Burbank contractors, board members and commissioners for the council’s consideration.
Burbank’s approach is a somewhat less strict stance than nearby officials have taken. L.A. County’s Board of Supervisors recently issued an executive order requiring county employees to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1 unless they have a religious or medical exemption. President Joe Biden has announced a similar policy for federal employees and contractors, as well as workers at large businesses.
And starting Oct. 22, only vaccinated Burbank Unified School District employees can be on campus unless they have a valid exemption.
McClinton said the city would need to appropriate about $743,000 to pay for COVID-19 tests through the end of the 2022 fiscal year, or June 30. She added that there was a “strong possibility” Burbank could be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.