First published in the Sept. 23 print issue of the San Marino Tribune.
What began almost as an aside has now escalated to a point where the city of San Marino is at loggerheads with many of its employees.
“The city of San Marino takes seriously its primary function — protecting the health and safety of the San Marino community, while also meeting its obligation to provide a safe and healthy workforce,” said a Sept. 9 post on the city’s website.
“Because of this, the city will be requiring that all city employees be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In consultation with City Council, the city has made the determination that regular testing will not be a viable alternative for those who are not vaccinated, and therefore, in the absence of a reasonable medical or religious accommodation, employees who do not get vaccinated will not be able to continue their tenure with the city.”
The matter has even spilled over into the local evening news, where it was reported on by KNBC-Channel 4’s Chuck Henry, who lives within the jurisdiction of San Marino’s law enforcement and fire personnel.
But the subject could have far-reaching effects, and unless the two sides find a solution to the impasse, the San Marino Police Department could lose almost half its officers, according to Sgt. Naved Qureshi. The 20-year law enforcement veteran is the president of the San Marino Police Officers’ Association, the union that represents the city’s 24 sworn officers.
Qureshi, who is in his second term as president and has been an SMPOA member for seven of the eight years he has been with the local police department, told the Tribune that just 13 officers have received the vaccine and that his union has been told to finish negotiations by December.
Unrepresented employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18, which means that they must have taken both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the single-dose Johnson & Johnson immunization by Oct. 4 to allow for the two weeks to reach full vaccination status.
“The SMPOA and our members are not opposing the vaccine mandate,” said Qureshi. “All we are asking is for the city to create an alternative method for testing or to help those unvaccinated employees keep their job.”
He also said that “100% of our membership is opposed to the termination clause of the policy. The members are not against the vaccine mandate policy because we believe in supporting public safety. However, we also respect the right for someone to not inject the vaccine in their body if that is what they choose.”
Engineer Nathan Foth, president of the San Marino Firefighters’ Association, reported that 16 of its 18 members are fully vaccinated. Foth has been with the San Marino Fire Department for 15 years and has spent the last decade as union chief.
“The San Marino Firefighters’ Association encourages all of our members to make the best decision for their own health, the health of their families, and for the health and safety of those they serve in our community,” Foth said in a statement. “While our organization would never discourage any member from becoming vaccinated against COVID-19, we believe every member must be able to make an educated choice in this matter based on their own personal and private situation.”
SMFD personnel fall under a separate mandate from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which on Aug. 12 imposed a Sept. 30 deadline to demonstrate proof of receiving a final dose of a COVID vaccine.
Sam Estrada, San Marino’s urban forester and a 19-year municipal employee, represents the city’s 38 full-time, non-sworn employees as president of the San Marino City Employees Association. Estrada recently said he did not know exactly how many of his fellow union members were vaccinated but believes “the majority” are.
“My role as president is to ensure the members of our group are valued for their contributions and commitment to the city and the public we serve,” Estrada said. “Unfortunately, we find ourselves in these times, but ultimately we share the same goal: a healthy and safe work environment. My hope is that we can work together.”
The SMPOA went so far as to purchase a full-page advertisement in last week’s Tribune that called the vaccine mandate “a violation of its officers’ personal freedoms of choice by requiring its officers to be vaccinated without any other testing option.” The ad warned that termination of the 11 unvaccinated officers would tax the department. In the ad, the SMPOA asks for frequent COVID testing as an alternative to the vaccine.
“I want the community to understand the SMPOA is not against a vaccine mandate policy,” Qureshi said in an email. “We have tenured officers who have their personal reasons to be unvaccinated or beliefs of freedom of choice. These officers should not be compelled to get a vaccine or be terminated from employment. All the SMPOA is asking for is an alternative solution to not lose these 11 valuable employees.
“These officers have risked their lives time and time again through the height of the pandemic over the past 1½ years and were not terminated. Now, due to the vaccine policy, their commitment to the city is not valued.”
City Manager Marcella Marlowe said the city has already begun the process of vaccine verification for unrepresented employees who are not part of a bargaining unit, and labor negotiations are underway with the city’s three bargaining units.
Details of the negotiations are confidential.
“The city did not come to this decision lightly, but ultimately believes that this is the best path forward to ensure the safety and well-being of both our residents and our employees,” Marlowe said. “We know that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, reduce the likelihood of getting and spreading COVID-19, and dramatically reduce the likelihood of severe illness or death. Because of this, we feel confident that this decision will allow the city to do our part to help end the COVID-19 pandemic and the unnecessary suffering it continues to cause.”
According to the county public health department’s Vaccine Dashboard website, nearly 85% of San Marino residents are vaccinated, with young people ages 12-17 and citizens age 65 or older 96% vaccinated.
“Our employees should be able to come to work knowing we have taken every step possible to protect their safety, particularly those with vulnerable loved ones at home,” Marlowe said. “And we want the residents, visitors and businesses that we serve to feel we have done everything possible to protect their safety. Sadly, the global pandemic isn’t showing signs of slowing down and the [Food and Drug Administration] has now given full authorization to one of the vaccines.
“The reality is, as best as we can tell, almost all of our unvaccinated employees are in positions that require significant interaction with the public. If you don’t get the vaccine or we do not grant you an accommodation for sincerely held religious beliefs or a medical condition, separation will follow.”
Marlowe said the city has already shouldered the financial burden of the pandemic. She said the city has already been subjected to 75 separate exposures to the virus resulting in 671 quarantine days for employees.
“By law, those quarantine days are paid for by the city and have resulted — every time — in either reduced services to the community because of staff shortages or additional overtime costs to our residents to ensure that we don’t have staff shortages,” Marlowe explained, adding that fully vaccinated employees do not need to quarantine if exposed.
The city considered offering testing as an alternative for employees who have a preference against the vaccine, but Marlowe said it “ultimately came to understand that testing does not offer any actual protection from contracting COVID-19, would not eliminate the need for unvaccinated employees to quarantine if exposed, and would require notification to anyone — staff or community member — that the employee had come into contact with during the two days prior to the positive test.”
“The City Council and I agree that mandating the vaccine is the right decision to make, and now is the right time to make it.”
Though not associated with the unions that represent their respective rank-and-file workers, Fire Chief Mario Rueda and Police Chief John Incontro said they are each fully vaccinated. Both men spoke about the changes they have seen take place in their respective fields and, despite initial blowback, have accepted new safety standards.
“I support getting a vaccine for all employees and making our job safer for all employees,” Rueda said. “We have an obligation to keep our people safe.”
Incontro mentioned that COVID-19 has been the leading cause of death for police officers nationwide since the beginning of the pandemic and that he supports taking the vaccine. He also envisioned a scenario in which the SMPD would lose almost half its officers if an agreement cannot be reached at the bargaining table.
“I hope I do not have to open that playbook, but that playbook will be available,” said Incontro, referring to contingency plans in case of a sudden staffing crisis.