First published in the Oct. 16 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
Despite concerns that employees could quit over the policy, the Burbank City Council approved vaccination mandates for municipal workers and some contract laborers.
The mandate that the council approved by a 3-2 vote on Tuesday will eventually require city employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face termination. A separate policy for contractors, which passed with unanimous support, will require businesses to prove that their employees who come onto city property or interact with the public are vaccinated.
City spokeswoman Simone McFarland said neither policy needs to return to the council for further action, adding that Burbank officials hope to implement the contractor mandate in November. The city staff mandate is projected to begin in January, though city representatives will meet with labor groups regarding the specifics and timing of the requirement. The policy for contractors will apply only to new and renewed contracts.
Both requirements will exclude workers with valid religious or medical exemptions.
The council approved a policy on Sept. 14 that requires city workers to undergo COVID-19 testing weekly unless they are vaccinated. Under that 3-2 decision, new hires are also required to be vaccinated. Betsy McClinton, Burbank’s management services director, told council members that though all of the city’s five unions were receptive to the testing policy, they “universally” showed opposition to a mandate.
“The city has a long history of positive labor relations that may be impacted by the adoption of an employee vaccination mandate,” she said Tuesday.
The Leader sought comment from the city’s five unions, but of the two that responded, only the Burbank Police Officers’ Association agreed to speak on the matter. Lt. J.J. Puglisi, the union’s president, said that while the BPOA is supportive of vaccines in general, its members are “disappointed” with the decision of the council majority to proceed with a mandate after the two groups agreed on the testing policy.
Puglisi said it’s unclear whether some personnel might resign over the decision. But some of the police union’s members, he added, have “very strong feelings and oppositions and beliefs regarding mandatory vaccinations. How that plays out and what they individually decide to in the face of the mandate is really up in the air at this point.”
SPLIT ON POLICY
Though all five members of the City Council are vaccinated, Mayor Bob Frutos and Councilwoman Sharon Springer said they were uncomfortable giving employees an ultimatum, particularly since multiple community members saying they are city laborers indicated they would quit if the mandate passed.
More than 73% of municipal employees were vaccinated as of Oct. 5, according to a city report submitted to the council. The city treasurer’s office and the Police Department continued to have the lowest vaccination rates at 40% and about 58%, respectively.
“We don’t have major outbreaks,” Springer said. “We’ve managed it well, we’re at 73% [vaccination rate], a lot can be done online.”
“I disagree with them,” she added, referring to people who don’t want to get the vaccine, “but I respect their fears.”
Most community members who addressed the council on Tuesday opposed the vaccine mandate, often saying they aren’t anti-vaccine but rather distrustful of the COVID-19 shot. Some claimed vaccines don’t stop the transmission of COVID-19 or suggested that they cause deaths. Others framed the issue as one of bodily autonomy.
“If you don’t own your own body, then you don’t live in a free society,” said one caller, who identified herself only as Candice and said she is a third-generation city employee. “My health is my responsibility — not yours.”
Public health experts and agencies have constantly reiterated that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective against hospitalization and death caused by the coronavirus. Recent studies have also suggested that they decrease transmission of the virus and reduce the chance a person will acquire it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC also does not believe vaccines cause death. The agency has noted that while there have been reports of more than 8,600 deaths among those who received a COVID-19 vaccination, more than 400 million doses have been administered in the United States, making those cases exceedingly rare even if all of those reports were verified. Furthermore, health professionals are also required to report those deaths even if it’s unknown whether the vaccine caused them.
Coincidentally, after speaking against the vaccine mandate, Candice was followed by another woman who provided the same single name, though she held the opposite view. Explaining that her daughter can’t be vaccinated and that her father has stage four lung cancer, she portrayed the mandate as a way for the city to protect residents from unvaccinated city workers.
“Frankly,” she said in reference to previous callers, “it’s not about your own personal health choice when your choice affects your community.”
The council’s supporters of the policy agreed. The council’s Konstantine Anthony, who previously stated discomfort with the idea of a vaccination mandate, argued that residents can’t choose to interact with a city worker who is vaccinated instead of one who is unvaccinated. Council colleague Nick Schultz, who was the first to push for a mandate, said his position remained unmoved.
With Frutos — who abstained on the vote regarding the testing policy — joining Springer in opposing the mandate, Vice Mayor Jess Talamantes effectively provided the tiebreaking vote despite having voted against the testing requirement last month. Both men said their initial decision was motivated by a lack of information about the earlier policy.
But on Tuesday, Talamantes said the mandate was a matter of health and safety, noting that other jurisdictions have passed similar rules for their workers.
“We’re not on the cutting edge of anything,” he said. “If anything, we’re just following the surge of what to do.”
All five members voted to require vaccinations for contract workers who come onto city property or interact with the public. Frutos told the Leader he voted for that item out of a sense of fairness, wanting to ensure the same policy for contract workers and city employees. Springer explained that while she believes enforcing vaccination for city workers with a threat of termination is counterproductive, she supported the policy for contractors to be “consistent with Burbank’s commitment to health and safety.”
BWP SUBJECT OF CONCERN
Though the vaccine mandate will affect all city departments, Burbank Water and Power received arguably the most attention of any city department on Tuesday. Multiple people who spoke during public comment in opposition to the vaccine mandate claimed they work for the utility. McClinton, the management services director, also noted that some of the department’s sections have strikingly low vaccination rates.
Specifically, she said, the electrical distribution, electrical equipment and testing, power supply center, power production, and water maintenance and construction sections have an average rate of just 57%.
Because the workers in those sections are highly trained and sought after by other employers, BWP noted in a staff report, the department believes the possibility of those laborers leaving in the wake of a vaccination mandate “is real.” The city invests four years and more than $1 million in training per employee, the staff report added, making it potentially costly and time-consuming to refill those positions if vacated.