Bill mandates vaccines for police, firefighters - Albuquerque Journal

Bill mandates vaccines for police, firefighters

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A city councilor is pushing to require COVID-19 vaccines for Albuquerque police officers and firefighters, noting their high level of interaction with the public.

Isaac Benton’s legislation, introduced Monday, would amend the city’s standing emergency declaration to say public safety employees must provide proof of vaccination or, in the case of a documented medical or religious exemption, show negative test results on a weekly basis.

Police and firefighter union leaders said they adamantly oppose the bill, warning it could trigger a public safety exodus.

Justin Cheney, president of the Albuquerque Area Firefighters Union, said city employees should be free to decide whether to get a shot.

“We have already had members reach out to us and state they will either retire or look for a different profession or a different firefighting job outside of the state if mandated,” Cheney said. He estimated the city could lose 25 to 40 of its roughly 720 firefighters if the proposal passes.

While President Joe Biden has mandated vaccines for federal employees, and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has issued a vaccine or regular testing requirement for most state workers, Mayor Tim Keller has not implemented similar rules for Albuquerque’s 6,000-plus employees.

Benton said he is frustrated with the administration’s reluctance, prompting him to introduce the bill. He said he initially contemplated a requirement for all municipal government workers but scaled it back to public safety because he said they have “very unique” jobs that involve more public interface than, say, solid waste drivers.

“They are interacting with the general public – all of the general public on a regular basis – but they also interact with a lot of folks who are marginalized to the point where it’s likely they’re not vaccinated,” Benton said in an interview.

The bill also calls on the city to “initiate discussions” with collective bargaining units to add the vaccine requirement for union members.

Keller’s office is still reviewing the proposal, spokeswoman Ava Montoya said in emailed answers to Journal questions.

She said there are legal and union-related considerations, including whether the proposal would work under the city’s Labor Management Relations Ordinance and how the city would determine applicable exemptions under federal and state law.

The administration, she said, has encouraged vaccinations, provided paid leave for employees going to get the shot and offered vaccination clinics at facilities. The city said it does not know how many of its employees are vaccinated.

“The City’s current policy is in line with Bernalillo County and Albuquerque Public Schools, and we have different unions and workforces than the State as we provide day-to-day services like picking up trash and putting out fires,” Montoya said.

Bernalillo County Manager Julie Morgas Baca last month notified nearly 2,700 employees that the county was not requiring vaccines, a decision motivated partly by concern that a mandate might drive out some vaccine-reluctant public safety employees.

Morgas Baca instead offered two extra vacation days to employees who show they have been vaccinated. Just over half of the county’s workforce – 50.8% – has now provided proof. Within public safety, 41.4% have provided proof, according to the county.

Benton said he’s aware of the argument that vaccine mandates will cause public safety employees to leave.

“I’m sure there is some risk of that,” he said, “but I think it’s overblown.”

Within most of state government, employees must get the vaccine or undergo weekly COVID-19 tests.

A New Mexico State Police spokesman said Monday that 72.6% of State Police employees are fully vaccinated, up from 56.9% in early September.

State Police said one officer and a few civilian employees have left due to the order.

Shaun Willoughby, president of the Albuquerque Police Officers’ Association, called the idea of a vaccine mandate “purely political” and said it was “comically concerning to me that Ike Benton is taking an interest in what’s good for public safety for the first time in his political career.”

Willoughby said 80 officers left APD last year and 136 have left this year, and he worries that mandating vaccination could push 20 to 30 others out of the department.

“I think it’s an example of Albuquerque City Council having their priorities all messed up,” he said. “There is literally a crisis before them. There is a violent crime crisis, they have officers leaving at an alarming rate. …”

Elise Kaplan contributed to the report.

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