Top Phoenix officials last week indefinitely suspended the implementation of an order requiring all its 14,000 city employees be vaccinated by mid-January against COVID-19 after a federal judge in Atlanta halted the Biden administration’s effort to mandate the vaccine for all federal contractors.
City Manager Jeff Barton’s announcement of the mandate suspension came Dec. 7 during a hearing that Councilwoman Ann O’Brien had requested on the vaccine mandate.
But that didn’t stop several hours of argument by council members and the general public for and against the directive.
And the hearing ended with an emotional plea by Mayor Kate Gallego to city employees to get the vaccine as she pointed out that 24 employees, including a Phoenix police officer who lived in Ahwatukee, had died from the virus.
“The funerals have been heartbreaking,” Gallego said. “They sound like incredible people and family members and you see their kids, picture them with their kids where they used to get wonderful hugs or be at Comic Con or Disneyland. Unfortunately, not a lot of pictures at graduation.
“And I want children of our city employees to have their parents at graduation,” she continued. “This is a tool that will help us do that and prevent empty seats – too many empty seats. So, I would encourage people to get out and get vaccinated.”
But Gallego’s sentiments – echoed by a number of citizens who called in as well as most of the mayor’s colleagues – were not shared by O’Brien or Councilman Sal DiCiccio when it came to ordering employees to get vaccines.
At the same time, other council members pointed to Tucson, where a mandate independent of the federal order for contractors was implemented and brought the vaccination rate among that city’s employees up from 91 percent to 99 percent with only one fireman and one policeman objecting on religious grounds.
The federal judge’s ruling came earlier the same day of the City Council hearing, Barton said, and applied to federal contractors nationwide.
Barton also stressed that the mandate for city employees was not of his own design – City Council apparently has no authority in Phoenix’s form of government to order employees to do anything – but rather because Phoenix has contractual obligations with the federal government to perform various tasks and its employees were therefore covered by the Biden mandate.
“I think it’s important that I emphasize that for the better part of the last two years, our priority has been to protect our community and our employees from COVID-19 while ensuring to the best of our ability a seamless continuity of operations,” Barton said.
“As an employer, we have been extremely flexible and supportive of our employees by offering a host of safety measures and flexible telework options were available,” he continued.
“I value their right to personal choice, religious freedom and other convictions but I also have an obligation to ensure that the city operates within state and federal laws.”
DiCiccio tore into Barton’s disclosure that the city’s decision to follow the Biden administration mandate came after the Phoenix administration relied on one law firm for interpreting it.
Noting other cities did not feel contractually obligated, DiCiccio said Phoenix had become “an outlier in the whole state of Arizona” by following one lawyer’s opinion.
But Barton took exception to that depiction of the process, noting that scores of public institutions had decided they were obliged to follow the mandate for federal contractors – including all three state universities, the state Department of Public Safety and the Arizona Department of Transportation.
Barton suggested that other cities and public entities possibly had not received the federal government’s interpretation of their liability for following the mandate or that their own contracts may have different language from those signed with Phoenix.
That prompted Councilman Tom Waring to say Phoenix officials should “compare the contracts line by line with these other cities” that did not feel obligated to follow the Biden rule.
Assistant City Manager Lori Bays outlined the toll that COVID-19 has taken on the city’s workforce, stating that since the pandemic broke in March 2020, 3,940 workers – nearly a third of all city employees – have tested positive at one time or another and that 24 have died.
She said 747 employees filed workmen’s compensation claims totaling $5.8 million and that the city has incurred $14.2 million “in medical costs related to the pandemic.”
Bays also said that up to now, 51
percent of all city employees have submitted documentation showing they are fully vaccinated.
In day-to-day terms, she said, COVID-19 infections have dealt a blow to services the city provides citizens.
“As the pandemic has progressed, we have seen a variety of operational impacts related to the pandemic,” Bays said. “In our fire department, we have had ambulances out of service. In our police department, our staffing issues have been exacerbated by the pandemic. And in the Public Works Department, we’ve had drivers having to double up routes because the work still needs to get done. In the water department, we have also have some challenges staffing our treatment plants and in other areas across the city.”
DiCiccio said he was not challenging either the seriousness of COVID-19, but rather requiring city employees to be vaccinated.
“COVID is a real deal…people are dying from it,” he said, adding “I would hope that people would not discredit this because every human body is different. Everyone reacts to things differently.”
He said he started taking hydroxychloroquine to ward off the virus but ended up getting COVID-19.
He also said the mandate had been issued at a time when Phoenix faces “a real public safety crisis” and that it would send scores of police officers and firefighters retiring from or leaving city employment at a time when their ranks already are seriously depleted.
“We are at crisis levels in the city of Phoenix and we are not going to get better,” DiCiccio said. “Public safety is at risk.”
O’Brien was equally critical of the mandate, stating, “Medical decisions such as this should be between an individual and their doctor, not the government’s. If you’re able and want the vaccine, I encourage you to get it the city offers many services for access to free vaccines and boosters.”
She noted that even during the hearing, vaccine mandate opponents were demonstrating and that she had received calls or emails from 400 people.
“The fight is not over, as my fellow councilmen have discussed here today,” OBrien said. “I will continue to support ... firefighters and I will continue to support all employees at the City of Phoenix.”