Union asks for limits to the vaccine mandate
SAN JOSE >> With COVID-19 vaccination rates going from sluggish to vastly improved among San Jose police officers — as some skepticism lingers about vaccine integrity — their union has written a proposal to limit the city’s vaccine and testing mandate and head off potential firings resulting from noncompliance.
A strong subtext of the proposal is the San Jose Police Officers’ Association is trying to stall the city’s second, much stricter phase of the mandate that would threaten termination to those employees who don’t get vaccinated and lack an approved exemption. Union officials fear dozens of officers could resign or get fired under this planned second phase of the mandate.
The union, citing its meet-and-confer rights, has proposed a plan to reconcile the police department’s approximately 1,150 sworn officers with a city mandate for vaccination or weekly testing for municipal employees. Most of the proposal outlines accommodations related to vaccination and testing, including provisions for medical or religious exemptions.
Language in the POA proposal specifically cites how similar vaccinate-ortest plans already are in place for the federal and state government and references this week’s full FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as an incentive for officers to get inoculated, especially with the highly infectious delta variant of the virus spreading throughout the country.
“This proposal really does strike a balance in maintaining safety and preventing the spread of the virus,” union President Sean Pritchard said. “We have and continue to encourage our members to get vaccinated. However, we also respect an individual’s decision on something that impacts them and their families.”
The current incarnation of the city’s employee mandate dictates that noncompliance can result in being placed on unpaid leave. But the union also is responding to a proposed plan by the city to institute an even stricter standard requiring vaccinations outright and limiting the weeklytesting alternative only to those eligible for a vaccine exemption.
Noncompliance to that later requirement would result in termination.
Pritchard warned that the city moving ahead to the second phase of the mandate could lead to the loss of as many as 100 officers and “will absolutely decimate this department.”
The city has general plans to move to the stricter phase at the end of September with latitude to reconsider if city officials determined it would have significant negative impacts on city services.
City spokesperson Carolina Camarena said Wednesday the city is now reviewing the POA proposal to determine how it might affect the city’s plans.
“We just received it, so we’ll take a look at it and reevaluate if necessary,” she said.
Officers’ vaccination adherence has sharply increased after being initially lackluster, with the police department reporting that 86% of sworn staff has gotten at least one vaccine dose. That represents a jump from the 50% to 55% estimate reported earlier in the summer.
The estimated fully vaccinated rate for the overall Santa Clara County population is just above 80%.
According to a source well connected to SJPD, there are at least 200 officers who still have not gotten vaccinated, or whose vaccination status is unknown. The source said some of the vaccine opposition is rooted in assertions of personal liberties, but that some officers are openly subscribing to conspiracy theories and debunked misinformation about the vaccines, including the idea that the shots are purported vehicles for government-issued tracking microchips.
The risk for officers and who they contact is especially pronounced given the public-facing nature of their jobs. For instance, as recently as Tuesday, San Jose police officers were tasked with clearing out the City
Council chambers of unmasked people protesting the mayor and council’s plan to require proof for vaccination for entry to large city-owned event venues, including the SAP Center and several theaters, museums and the main convention center downtown.
“The overwhelming message from our employee leaders is to require vaccination to protect the health of all of our city employees,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said earlier this month regarding the city employee mandate. “And we also have an obligation to our larger community and as long as city employees will be interacting with our community, we must ensure they can do so safely.”