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Dozens of San Diego city workers may be fired for not complying with COVID-19 testing requirement

COVID-19

Employees granted exemptions to the city’s vaccination mandate were required to undergo weekly testing, but many haven’t complied, including up to 20 police officers.

Dozens of San Diego city employees who agreed to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing instead of getting vaccinated could be fired for failing to comply with the testing requirement, city officials said.

The group of employees includes as many as 20 police officers, according to the police union, which said any terminations would strain the already short-staffed police force.

In the 2021-22 fiscal year, which ended June 30, more than 230 San Diego police officers left the department — a 52 percent increase compared with the previous year — for a variety of reasons, including the city’s vaccination mandate, staffing shortages that require overtime or constrain time off, a continuing call for changes to police practices, and jobs at other departments that offer higher pay and better retirement packages.

Neither the city nor the San Diego Police Department would confirm how many officers received advance notices of termination, the first step in the city’s termination process. City and police officials said they were unable to provide a total for officers because of state laws that guard officers’ personnel information.

Aside from the police agency, 34 employees from other departments received notices. According to the city, the group includes 14 with the Municipal Employees Association, which represents the city’s white-collar workers; 13 with Local 127 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents mostly blue-collar workers; and five with San Diego Firefighters Local 145.

According to the city, employees who received advance notices of termination will be given the opportunity to comply with the testing requirement or appeal the notices.

Nicole Darling, director of the city’s communications department, said the employees were given multiple chances to comply. The city offers free on-the-job testing.

Mayor Todd Gloria’s staff said he was unavailable to comment July 6, but Gloria told KPBS a day earlier that it would be regrettable to have to terminate employees, though he expressed hope that they would comply.

“I think we have been exceedingly patient with these folks,” the mayor told KPBS. “We have worked on this on an individual basis to understand where they’re at and what the concerns are.”

The city created a testing requirement after granting religious and medical exemptions to its vaccination mandate to hundreds of employees. As of July 6, the city had granted exemptions to about 1,000 employees, including nearly 420 police officers.

Most city employees — about 90 percent of its workforce — are fully vaccinated.

The city put in place its vaccination mandate last year despite strong opposition from some employees. Many officers and firefighters in particular were vocal in their resistance and called for a testing alternative.

In response to the notices of termination, the San Diego Police Officers Association, noting the recent spike in officer departures, said firing some 20 officers would be like “pouring gasoline on a fire that is already burning out of control.”

According to KPBS, many employees have objected to both COVID-19 vaccinations and tests by insisting their Christian beliefs instruct them not to use testing swabs because they contain ethylene oxide. The chemical is a known carcinogen but is not actually present on the swabs — it’s used to sterilize them. KPBS reported that medical and religious experts say the employees’ claims are groundless.

The notices mark the second time the city has issued advance notices of termination related to its COVID-19 requirements. In January, the city sent notices to employees who had not gotten vaccinated, requested an exemption or taken another action to comply. Data later showed that many employees complied after the city issued the notices. ◆