Honolulu first responders account for half of city workers seeking COVID-19 vaccine mandate exemptions
The city is the only government employer in Hawaii that does not allow weekly testing for workers who decline to be vaccinated and are not also exempt for religious or medical reasons
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser
HONOLULU — Police officers, firefighters, paramedics and ocean safety personnel account for 51% of city workers citing their health or religious faith as the reason they will test weekly for COVID-19 rather than comply with the city's vaccination mandate—mirroring a national trend by first responders.
There are no vaccination statistics for all of America's first responders, according to a review this month by The Associated Press, but individual police and fire departments are reporting figures far below the national vaccination rate of 74% of adults who have had at least one dose.
In Honolulu as of Tuesday, 255 police officers, 101 firefighters, 80 water safety workers and 23 emergency medical technicians and mobile emergency care specialists claimed that religion or a medical issue prevent them from accepting a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the city Department of Human Resources.
Those 459 workers account for about 12.9% of Oahu's 3, 551 first responders. Barring extraordinary circumstances, requests for exemptions will be honored.
About 78 % of police officers, 86% of firefighters and 71% of lifeguards and paramedics are vaccinated, according to the city.
The city is the only government employer in Hawaii that does not allow weekly testing for workers who decline to be vaccinated and are not also exempt for religious or medical reasons.
Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, said that's because infection and mortality data revealed that a mandate was the best way to keep people safe and prevent the further spread of the delta variant.
Honolulu accounts for 76% of the state's 653 COVID-19 fatalities, and those 500 deaths include two city workers.
"We chose to take that position (vaccine mandate ) because we have over 10, 000 employees and our first obligation is to them, to create a safe working environment for them and their families, " Blangiardi said. "We know it was within our right to install a vaccine mandate and we knew in order to do that we needed to provide for a medical or religious exemption. In addition to protecting our employees, we are making a commitment to mitigate the pressure on our hospitals, on our ICUs, out of respect for the hospital workers."
After receiving an exemption, city workers may continue their duties while submitting to a COVID-19 test on a weekly basis.
While one test a week may not ensure an employee doesn't contract the virus during the week, the city said its testing plan was "implemented with advice from medical and public health professionals."
"Once-a-week testing is not a substitute for vaccination, it is an accommodation that is offered to those individuals who have a medical /religious reason for not getting vaccinated, " according to a city statement in response to Star-Advertiser questions about the vaccination mandate. "The State has a similar weekly testing program for unvaccinated workers. The Federal government recently announced a policy requiring vaccination or weekly testing for private companies as well."
THE ONLINE attestation form for city employees requires them to log in and complete the fillable form. To claim an exemption, workers must place an "X " in Box C if they submitted a request for a religious or medical exemption. While the request is pending and if it is approved, the employee will be subject to weekly testing.
The Department of Human Resources reviews requests for religious and medical exemptions to ensure a legitimate request has been made, the statement said. "Acts of misconduct by an employee will be addressed in accordance with the city's existing policies."
Employees must fill out a request for exemption form and give it to a departmental coordinator to start the review process, according to the mandate guidelines.
"Requests will be reviewed and granted if they do not cause undue hardship to the City and County of Honolulu or pose a direct threat to the health and safety of others, " the policy said.
As of Tuesday, there are 890 city workers who asked to be exempt from the mandate, and two Honolulu police officers represent the only first responders facing termination for declining to comply with the mandate.
One of them is Cpl. Mark Kutsy, a Marine Corps veteran who has worked for HPD for 24 years. Kutsy received a termination notice and was suspended without pay after declining the vaccine and failing to apply for an exemption.
He is willing to submit to weekly testing, but that's not an option for city workers without an exemption.
"The majority of our Honolulu Police officers are vaccinated or have submitted for an exemption. Those few who haven't selected any option, SHOPO will do our best to assist them, " said Malcolm Lutu, president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, in a statement to the Star-Advertiser.
The 101 firefighters whose religious beliefs or medical conditions prevent them from accepting a vaccine have not required help so far from the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, Local 1463.
"No one has been threatened or faced with any negative repercussions for selecting an exemption, " said HFFA President Bobby Lee.
United Public Workers, the union representing city EMS workers, declined comment.
First responders participating in a lawsuit seeking to stop the mandate, as well as union officials and city lawmakers, said Honolulu should align its policy with those established by the state, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties, which permit unvaccinated workers to remain on the job if they submit to regular testing and follow safety protocols.
Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, said the union, through a grievance process, is working on behalf of members employed by the City and County of Honolulu to create a testing option for those who decline the vaccine but will not apply for an exemption.
"They ( Honolulu ) are the only jurisdiction in the state that has not allowed a testing option. From the very beginning, we encouraged all to be vaccinated but understanding there may be reasons and some that may not be willing and able, " Perreira said. "This is a communitywide crisis and this is a communitywide problem. For all of us, every citizen that is eligible should be vaccinated or should be tested on a regular basis to be sure we are corralling the virus and not contributing to the spread."
President Joe Biden last week ordered vaccinations for employees of the executive branch and contractors who do business with the federal government, with no option to test out. The president's vaccine mandate further requires employers with more than 100 workers to demand vaccinations or weekly testing.
Workers at health care facilities that receive federal Medicare or Medicaid also will have to be fully vaccinated.
Honolulu City Council members Heidi Tsune yoshi and Augie Tulba, chair and vice chair of the Council's Public Safety Committee, say anyone who chooses not to get vaccinated should not be subject to disciplinary action and should have the option of testing to keep their job.
"I believe in letting people decide for themselves as to whether they should be vaccinated against COVID-19. Our first responders have been working tirelessly throughout the pandemic, and continue to take the necessary precautions to perform their professional duties, while also remaining healthy. I believe they will operate in a safe manner, regardless of their vaccination status, " said Tulba in a statement to the Star-Advertiser.
"Since we all know that a person can still be infected even after being vaccinated, I support letting City employees, and first responders, have the option to either be fully vaccinated or show proof of a weekly negative COVID test."
Tulba said the city's decision to serve HPD's Kutsy with termination papers "saddened " him.
"We already are having a challenging time recruiting police officers, and I'm saddened to hear about pending terminations when we haven't exhausted other options, such as weekly testing, " he said.
Tsuneyoshi, who challenged Blangiardi during a recent public hearing about the city's COVID-19 response to be more open-minded toward those who chose not to accept the vaccine, said every city worker should be given the choice to take regular, free COVID-19 tests if they choose not to get vaccinated.
"Our first responders have been on the front line since Day One. They do their job in the most appropriate and safe way possible. We should be looking to them about how to maintain a safe working environment, " Tsuneyoshi told the Star-Advertiser. "I really hope the mayor would take that into consideration ... , listen to them and give them the ability to create a path forward to maintain their integrity and safe working environment."
In a sworn declaration filed in support of a federal lawsuit against the state and city mandate, Keith Daniel, an 18-year veteran of the Honolulu Fire Department, said he does not understand why Honolulu is the only county in Hawaii that won't permit employees to test in lieu of vaccination.
"The neighbor islands were given a testing mandate rather than a vaccine mandate. Mayor Blangiardi, however, was now forcing us to provide either a religious or medical exemption and have it approved or potentially denied, which would leave us facing an almost immediate termination. And who will be judging the value of my faith ? Someone in the Department of Human Resources ? This is an abomination against my freedom of religion guaranteed in this great nation and an invasive intrusion into my sacred personal relationship with God, " Daniel said in the declaration.
Theresa McGregor, an 18-year veteran of the Emergency Services Department, where she works as a mobile emergency care specialist, echoed Daniel's statement in her own declaration filed in federal court.
"I have transported vaccinated COVID-19 patients to the hospital. I have transported patients who had an adverse reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine to the hospital. I have transported unvaccinated patients who were COVID-19 positive to the hospital. Seeing adverse reactions to the vaccine has contributed to my vaccine hesitancy ... , " she wrote in her declaration, filed Aug. 27.
Jeffrey Harris, an attorney who handles labor issues at Torkildson, Katz, Hetherington, Harris &Knorek, said he supports Honolulu's mandate, which he considers perfectly legal.
The mandate could have been more stringent, because the city "has no constitutional obligation to offer any religious exemption to its COVID-19 vaccination mandate, " Harris told the Star-Advertiser. He cited a legal precedent that determined "the right to practice religion freely does not include liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death."
"Neither the state nor the counties are constitutionally required to offer religious exemptions, " Harris said. "That's been the law for at least 100 years."
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