Coronavirus

Thousands of City Workers in Phoenix are Still Unvaxxed, Mandate Threat or Not

State Sen. Kelly Townsend speaks at a rally against Phoenix's proposed vaccine mandate.
State Sen. Kelly Townsend speaks at a rally against Phoenix's proposed vaccine mandate. Katya Schwenk
Flip a coin: That's the chance any city worker in Phoenix has gotten the COVID-19 vaccine, despite the looming threat of a mandate across the workforce of 14,000 people.

It's lower than the statewide average of 63 percent of residents and lags behind the national average of 71 percent of those who have gotten at least one dose.

City leaders were poised to adopt a vaccine requirement on Tuesday, despite fervent opposition — including hundreds of protesters who ripped up vaccination cards on the steps of city hall.

But a court ruling in Georgia on Tuesday put the brakes on the Biden Administration's vaccine rules for federal contractors.

So thousands of workers who are not yet vaccinated have a reprieve, as the city has temporarily reversed its decision to pause the mandate, which had been slated to take effect next month. Those who still refused could be disciplined. or even fired, from their job.

The city's mandate now hinges on whether Biden's executive order survives in court. For now, there's fear that the vaccination rates among workers won't improve.

Phoenix would have been the first among cities in the Valley to approve a vaccine mandate. City attorneys argued that the city was forced to adopt the policy after Biden issued an executive order requiring all businesses and government contractors to choose: test workers regularly at great expense or require vaccines. Phoenix is bound to rules of any other federal government contractor, attorneys claimed. Workers had until January 18 to get the jab or risk their job.

"While I continue to believe the vaccination is the best defense against COVID-19, we owe it to our employees to allow the legal process to play out," said Jeff Barton, city manager for Phoenix.

The latest numbers show that city employees — particularly those in the city's fire and police departments, tracking with national trends — have lagging vaccination rates. 

About 61 percent of people in Maricopa County age 12 or older are fully vaccinated, data shows. Only 51 percent of city employees are fully vaccinated among those who volunteered the information, city spokesperson Dan Wilson confirmed to Phoenix New Times.

The city has used the carrot instead of the stick in recent months. Employees can get $75 cash if they show proof of vaccination.

But the approach has so far been unsuccessful, particularly among the city's fire and police departments, which have far fewer workers vaccinated.

About 41 percent of the Phoenix Police Department is vaccinated — about 1,600 out of 3,900 sworn officers and civilians alike. That's only a 6 percent increase compared to August. In the past three months, only 250 more employees have since been jabbed.

Among some workers, there appears a deep distrust of the vaccine and its effectiveness.

Phoenix Police Officer Fay Winter, for one, claimed the vaccine was "poison," in a public comment she submitted to the city.

"I am opposed to putting [the vaccine] in my body even if it means I will lose my job serving the citizens of Phoenix," Winter wrote.

Others questioned the vaccine's effectiveness, despite multiple large-scale clinical trials which dispute such claims. Other studies have shown that the vaccine significantly reduces the chance of hospitalization and death, but also lowers the likelihood of spreading the virus. Serious side effects are rare.

"The vaccines do not stop infection, transmission, or death," Phoenix Police Sergeant Paul Weishaar wrote to the city. "If they don't work, then why do you need to force them upon everyone?"

Officers said they are "losing people" every week, exacerbating the city's chronic policing shortage. The police union — and even some city councilmembers — claim that the mandate would prompt employees to quit in droves.

"A lot of people have made their decision, said Jim Waring, council member for District 2 in Phoenix. "People feel strongly about this."

You're even less likely to meet a firefighter on the job who has gotten the jab.

About 35 percent of firefighters are vaccinated, about 700 out of 2,000 employees. This, despite COVID-19 running rampant among its ranks, according to television station 12News. There are 49 firefighters who are out sick with COVID-19, according to the city.

"Fires will not be extinguished," said local anti-vaccine activist Merissa Hamilton about how the labor shortage will worsen if the mandate is approved.

But that's not what has happened in other cities with vaccine mandates.

Upwards of 90 percent of employees in Tucson have been vaccinated as of last month, while about 10 percent remain unvaccinated due to religious or medical exemption. Likewise, 97 percent of employees of the Salt River Indian Community have gotten vaccinated, although some firefighters were fired.

Phoenix Fire Department employees are already required to be vaccinated for other diseases, said Mayor Kate Gallego. Before the pandemic, that policy had not been an issue, she said.

Some council members feel the mandate should be passed regardless of the court ruling.

"For me, it's very concerning that we are potentially exposing vulnerable members of the public [to COVID-19]," said Yassamin Ansari, council member of District 7.

The public doesn't get to decide whether they get an employee who has been vaccinated or not when they call for help, she said.

In the meantime, the city council is back to considering ways to sweeten the deal for vaccine-hesitant workers. One idea on the table: a $1,500 bonus for those who succumb to the needle. 
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. She previously reported for VTDigger and the Indypendent.
Contact: Katya Schwenk