CA Firefighters Union Challenges State's Vaccine Rules

Aug. 16, 2021
CAL FIRE Local 2881 has filed an unfair labor practice charge in response to Gov. Gavin Newsom's order requiring all state employees to prove they're vaccinated or wear a mask and submit to testing.

Editor's note: Find's complete coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic here.

Two more California state worker unions have filed objections to Gov. Gavin Newsom's order requiring all employees to prove they're vaccinated or to wear a mask and submit to regular COVID-19 testing.

CAL FIRE Local 2881, which represents about 6,000 state firefighters, filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Public Employment Relations Board this week, becoming at least the third state union to file an official objection.

The International Union of Operating Engineers, which represents about 11,000 state maintenance workers, also filed a grievance with CalHR July 28.

"These are conditions of employment, said union representative Brandy Johnson. "And the fundamental thing is we have the right to meet and confer over conditions of employment."

The Local 2881 filing also says the state violated labor laws by failing to provide advance notice of the change to employees' working conditions.

Newsom announced the new vaccination requirement for state workers during a press conference at 10 a.m. on July 26.

About 45 minutes later, the California Human Resources Department emailed union leaders outlining the new vaccination policy. The email said employees needed to show proof of vaccination by Aug. 2 or undergo testing as part of a protocol that would be phased in over a number of weeks.

CAL FIRE's position is that vaccines should be voluntary, said union president Tim Edwards.

"We oppose mandating vaccinations and believe he state has a contractural obligation to meet and confer with labor over any possible impacts to the employees," he said.

Advance notice would have provided time to meet and discuss details, such as how COVID-19 tests might be administered at fire camps, he said.

"It's a logistical nightmare," Edwards said.

Human Resources Department Director Eraina Ortega said Thursday that the emergency declaration Newsom issued last year over the coronavirus pandemic gives the department authority to make changes to working conditions without the usual notice periods.

In the department's July 26 email, deputy director of labor relations Paul Starkey noted a doubling in the rate of COVID-19 cases and a spike in hospitalizations.

"We don't' have 30 or 60 days to wait to take action when the cases are rising," Ortega said Thursday. "And that has been the approach throughout the pandemic."

She said the department would meet and confer as soon as it could with the unions.

California unions take different approaches

SEIU Local 1000, California's largest state worker union representing about 100,000 employees, filed an unfair labor practice charge and sent a cease and desist letter to the state Human Resources Department on July 27.

Local 1000 president Richard Louis Brown acted on his own in filing the complaints, rather than bringing it up with the union's board of directors, and the filings sparked the ire of some members who supported the requirement.

All of the state employee unions face challenges of appeasing members who are vehemently in favor of vaccination requirements for all their coworkers and others who are strongly opposed to the directive.

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, representing about 27,000 officers, has supported Newsom's July 26 mandate, since it gives officers the option to choose testing over the vaccine, but has told its members it will oppose more stringent vaccine requirements.

The California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, representing about 7,300 miscellaneous law enforcement officers such as park rangers and security officers, has concluded the state has the authority to require vaccines, according to board meetings notes posted on its website.

Which agencies test for COVID-19?

Testing is still ramping up for state workers who aren't vaccinated.

The Human Resources Department initially launched pilot programs in offices of four departments—the California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, the California Department of Motor Vehicles and CAL FIRE—to work out logistical details. The Employment Development Department has since been added to the pilot program.

More departments could be added as soon as next week, and additional departments will be added on roughly a weekly basis going forward, Ortega said.

Ortega said the state will pay for the tests and the tests will be administered on state time.

As employees return to offices, those who haven't provided proof of vaccination will be required to be tested before going in, as long as a testing protocol is in place for their office, she said. All unvaccinated employees will be required to wear masks.

The Human Resources Department is gathering numbers of vaccinated employees — but not identities — from departments in order to gauge how much testing will be needed for unvaccinated employees, Ortega said.


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