Dozens of city of San Diego 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 San Diego police officers, according to the police union, which said any terminations would strain the already short-staffed police force.
Neither the city nor the San Diego Police Department would confirm how many officers received advanced 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. The group, according to the city, includes 14 employees with the Municipal Employees Association, which represents the city’s white-collar workers; 13 employees with Local 127 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents mostly blue-collar workers; and five employees with San Diego Firefighters Local 145.
Nicole Darling, director of the city’s communications department, said the employees were given multiple opportunities to comply with the testing requirement. The city offers free on-the-job testing.
Mayor Todd Gloria’s staff said his office was unavailable to comment Wednesday. Gloria told KPBS a day earlier that it would be regrettable to have to terminate employees, although 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 mandate to hundreds of employees. As of Wednesday, the city had granted exemptions to about 1,000 employees, including nearly 420 police officers.
Most city employees — about 90 percent of the city’s workforce — are fully vaccinated.
The city put in place its vaccine mandate last year despite strong opposition from some employees. Many officers and firefighters in particular were vocal about their opposition and called for a testing alternative.
In response to the notices of termination, the San Diego Police Officers Association noted that the city lost hundreds of officers — more than 230 — in the fiscal year that ended June 30. That was the highest separation total the department has seen in more than a decade.
“This significant and rapid departure of officers has put tremendous strain on our department, making it harder for officers to respond to calls, implement community policing, address quality-of-life issues and generally protect public safety,” the police union said in a statement shared on Twitter.
Firing some 20 police officers would be like “pouring gasoline on a fire that is already burning out of control,” the union said.
Many employees have objected to both COVID-19 vaccines and tests by insisting their Christian beliefs instruct them not to use testing swabs because they contain ethylene oxide, according to KPBS. 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.
According to the city, employees who received advanced notices of termination will be given the opportunity to comply with the testing requirement or appeal the notices.
The notices mark the second time the city issued advanced notices of termination over its vaccine mandate. In January, the city sent notices to employees who had not gotten vaccinated, requested an exemption or taken another action to comply with the mandate. Data later showed that many employees complied after the city issued the notices.