ENCINITAS — As legal battles intensify nationwide between municipal governments and first responders, negotiations over mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations remain ongoing between the City of Encinitas and a local firefighters’ union.
Last month, the city extended its deadline to Jan. 31 for Encinitas Fire Department personnel to show proof of vaccination.
Alex Poff, president of the Encinitas Firefighters’ Association, told The Coast News the fire union and city are still in a “meet-and-confer” period of negotiations.
“We strongly support weekly testing and vaccination for those who chose it,” Poff said. “And I can’t emphasize enough that we’ve been doing this for two years without incident. Our number one goal is to give the community the level of service that they are accustomed to and they deserve.”
Currently, the city is only testing unvaccinated employees within the Encinitas Fire Department.
“In the meantime, we support doing weekly testing just to make sure anyone who is not vaccinated is at least tested every few days and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Poff said.
Poff says over 70% of the fire staff are currently vaccinated.
The City of Encinitas followed through on its mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy in October by placing all non-vaccinated workers on unpaid leave for 30 days. Both union and non-union employees were subject to temporary dismissal without pay if they could not provide proof of their vaccination status by Oct. 7.
Encinitas does not allow for a weekly testing option for its Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, staff members due to the high cost, according to the city.
While talks have remained behind closed doors in Encinitas, some cities are beginning to publicly crackdown on first responders refusing to get the vaccine. Earlier this month, a total of 113 Los Angeles city firefighters were removed from duty without pay for failing to meet the city’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for municipal employees, according to regional wire reports.
Firefighters and state workers in California, Washington and Florida have filed lawsuits over mandatory vaccinations. Most recently, two Beverly Hills firefighters and a nonprofit group filed a lawsuit Los Angeles County and the City of Beverly Hills, alleging the county’s health care worker coronavirus vaccination mandate should be declared void and that the city has no authority to question religious exemptions to the mandate, according to City News Service.
In previous comments to The Coast News, a city spokesperson did not express concerns over staffing issues within the Encinitas Fire Department if a vaccine mandate results in the dismissal of fire employees refusing to comply.
Julie Taber, the city’s public information officer, has previously told The Coast News that the city has “traditionally staffed non-fire operations with a combination of in-house city staff and consultants. As a result, we supplement with consulting staff when we have vacancies where possible.”
Encinitas Fire Chief Mike Stein will handle any staff issues should they arise, Taber said.
“As the discussions continue, the Fire Chief will be tasked with identifying and addressing any potential staffing changes that could occur if the City is unable to reach an agreement with the union,” Taber said. “We are not there yet.”
Amid the vaccination talks, the city and fire union are also in the process of negotiating a new contract. The current deal, which was approved in 2018, is set to expire at the end of the year.
In a statement on the city’s website, Encinitas Mayor Catherine Blakespear said the vaccine is a critical part of public safety for the city.
“We at the City of Encinitas are holding ourselves to a higher standard of safety,” Blakespear said. “We do not want to be the cause of any infections and we know the vaccine is the best way to stop the spread of coronavirus. We want people to have the confidence when they come into City Hall to conduct business or when our employees enter their homes that we are doing all we can to protect them.”
The city’s COVID-19 policy agreed to in August 2021 states that city employees must present proof of vaccination to human resources and must also receive any FDA-approved booster shot. The policy states that any employee who violates the policy will be “disciplined for cause in accordance with an applicable memorandum of understanding.”
According to NBC, firefighter leadership and personnel are split over vaccine mandates. For example, the International Association of Fire Chiefs has expressed support for mandatory vaccinations. Conversely, the International Association of Fire Fighters has said it “strongly” encourages firefighters to get vaccinated, but does not think it should be mandated.