Police, Fire Unions Open to Vaccine Policies

First published in the Sept. 25 print issue of the Burbank Leader.

Local police and fire labor groups say they will abide by vaccine and testing requirements affecting their respective personnel, including a rule the city recently passed for municipal workers.
The Burbank policy, which the City Council approved on Sept. 14, requires all city staff members to be tested for COVID-19 weekly unless they are fully vaccinated. The testing mandate is tentatively expected to go into effect on or around Oct. 11. New hires must be vaccinated unless they have a valid medical or religious exemption.
Burbank Fire Department employees aren’t included in the policy. They are instead covered by a Los Angeles County policy that requires emergency health service workers to receive their second dose of the vaccine by Sept. 30. A regular testing alternative will be available only for those who have an exemption.
More than 73% of city personnel reported being vaccinated as of last week, a city spokeswoman said after the City Council approved the policy on a 3-1 vote. Betsy McClinton, Burbank’s management services coordinator, told council members during that meeting that the labor groups representing Burbank’s workers were receptive to the plan.
The Leader reached out to all five unions for comment. Representatives from the Burbank Police Officers’ Association, Burbank Firefighters Local 778 and the Burbank City Employees Association provided answers, while the Burbank Management Association declined to comment and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 did not respond to emails.
Griselda Cox, president of the city employees union, said that the group is monitoring the City Council’s discussion regarding a potential vaccine mandate.
BPOA President Lt. J.J. Puglisi said the union is receptive to the testing policy and has encouraged its members to get the vaccine. But while he’s fully vaccinated himself, Puglisi noted that some workers have religious beliefs or medical conditions that prohibit them from receiving the shot.
As of mid-September, the Burbank Police Department had one of the lowest vaccination rates of the city, with just over 58% of employees reporting being vaccinated. The only department with a lower rate was the city treasurer’s department, at 40%.
Puglisi said he isn’t sure why his department’s rate is so low, though he speculated that a number of its members have prior experience in the military, where some became vaccine-hesitant due to rumors of side effects from less common inoculations.
“I think that the city and the department have taken many precautions to try to keep the employees and the public safe,” said Puglisi, who earlier this year expressed disappointment that law enforcement officers weren’t prioritized for vaccine eligibility.
The BPOA isn’t opposing the requirement that new hires must be vaccinated, Puglisi added, noting that potential employees aren’t union members at that point.
While BPD personnel will have a testing option if they choose not to receive the vaccine, the fire department’s requirement is stricter. Eric Rowley, president of the Burbank Firefighters Local 778, said he wishes the county would have provided the same option, though he noted that department’s high vaccination rate doesn’t make the policy too much of a concern.
“We serve the public, and if [that’s what] the public needs us to do, then that’s what we’ll do,” Rowley said.
More than 73% of BFD personnel reported being vaccinated in mid-September, according to a city spokeswoman.
Though his union has yet to discuss the subject, Rowley said he believes L.A. County’s mandate effectively requires new hires to be vaccinated. Communication from the county could have been better, he added, saying the announcement was something of a surprise.
Officials in L.A. County have expressed urgency in getting first responders vaccinated, considering their frequent close contact with community members, during the recent surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. But some labor groups have staunchly opposed vaccine mandates. Los Angeles Police Department employees sued their city this month in response to a vaccine requirement, while members of other public safety agencies have publicly threatened to resign over such policies.
The Burbank City Council will discuss expanding the local policy to require vaccinations for municipal employees and contractors during its Oct. 12 meeting. In the panel’s most recent discussion, however, only one member — Councilman Nick Schultz — advocated for issuing a vaccination mandate for staff members, with most others expressing discomfort with the idea of removing the testing option.