City Hall

Houston fire and police staff have the lowest COVID-19 vaccine compliance rates among city employees, records show

City employees have had over six weeks to comply with the mayor’s COVID-19 order.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Mayor Sylvester Turner at a June 2, 2021 Houston City Council meeting.

Nearly three months after Mayor Sylvester Turner signed an executive order requiring Houston's 21,000 city employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, receive a medical or religious exemption, or submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks, compliance with the order varies widely among departments.

Just over 60% of Houston firefighters had either been vaccinated, submitted test results or received an exemption as of Nov. 15 — the lowest rate of any city department.

That’s according to city data released to Houston Public Media, which also revealed Houston police, waste management and health staff at the bottom of the list of those who have complied with Turner’s order.

Just 74% of police officers were in compliance with the mandate, along with 74% of Solid Waste Management employees and 74% of Health and Human Services employees.

The city secretary’s office, which has just seven employees, is 100% compliant with the mayor’s order. The legal department with 185 employees and the city I.T. department’s 180 are next on the list with about 98% compliance each as of Nov. 15.

The mayor’s own office is 90% compliant with his executive order as of Nov. 15, 13th on the list of 25 departments.

The list was provided by the city after a Texas Public Information Act request, and also showed just 72% of city council staff were compliant — second-lowest among all departments. But council staff pushed back on those numbers Wednesday and Thursday, saying they've reached nearly 100% compliance in the weeks since the Nov. 15 report.

Houston Public Media surveyed all 16 council offices about compliance. Council members Edward Pollard, Dave Martin, Tiffany Thomas, Robert Gallegos and Tarsha Jackson all reported that their staff were vaccinated and in compliance.

The council members added that they are vaccinated, as well – even though elected officials are exempt from the order, as are people appointed to boards or commissions.

The 11 other council members did not provide a comment for this story.

The police department’s compliance rate also could be an underestimate, according to Douglas Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union. Griffith said he’s seen significant turnout from officers at COVID-19 testing events twice a month.

We know because we have [testing] here at our offices. We also have a company that will go to the stations and do it, as well,” Griffith said. “We had over 1,800 people go and do the testing just in our last round of tests. So we know it's getting done. For whatever reason, it's not being uploaded properly. This could be just something as simple as messaging.”

Griffith praised Turner for crafting a policy that gives officers the flexibility to choose testing instead of vaccination.

"The mayor's seen the issues around the nation. I just think he did a really good job of working with us, coming up with a solution that's beneficial for everyone,” Griffith said.

Griffith estimates most officers are now in compliance with the order.

"We believe that our vaccination rate is probably somewhere in the 60 percentile range, and that would leave about 1,800 people that need to get tested, and that's pretty close to what we're having,” Griffith said. “You're going to always have outliers that are [saying] ‘I'm not doing that, you can't force me.' And the city will deal with that when it comes down to it."

The city’s Nov. 15 compliance data was the most recent available. Houston Public Media has requested a more recent report, which was not available as of Thursday afternoon.

On Sept. 8, the date Turner issued his order, 342 city employees had active cases of COVID-19, including 129 police officers.

Fourteen city employees have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, according to the mayor's office.

Turner had previously mandated face coverings for all city employees in August, after Gov. Greg Abbott's executive order prohibiting local governments from such mandates. Abbott then banned COVID-19 vaccine mandates statewide on Oct. 11, preventing any employer from requiring vaccination. That order is still making its way through state courts, but his mandate ban could nonetheless stymie the mayor’s efforts.

But Turner's executive order doesn't require workers to get vaccinated. Instead, it offers unvaccinated employees two alternatives: Either submit COVID-19 test results every two weeks or file a medical or religious exemption.

Under the order, employees were required to submit test results on the first and 15th of each month, beginning on Oct. 15. Employees who don't comply could be subject to "corrective action up to and including indefinite suspension or termination," the order states.

“A failure to adhere to the policy will result in disciplinary action and could even cost you your job,” Turner told city council at a meeting where he announced the order.

In a statement Thursday, the mayor's office didn't specify how Turner plans to address employees who aren't complying with the order, but said the city's Human Resources department is continuing to educate employees on the requirements.

"By implementing the executive order, our goal is save more lives, prevent illness throughout city departments and reduce costs for everyone," the mayor's office wrote. "The City intends to enforce the Executive Order and follow the steps outlined to ensure compliance."

Compliance with the mayor's order appears to have increased over time. As of Nov. 15, 62% of city employees have reported they're vaccinated, up from 46% during the first reporting period a month earlier. The Houston Fire Department has seen a similar rise in compliance, with 60% now complying with the order, up from 40% initially.

The city has approved COVID-19 test results from 14% of employees, a small increase from 11% in the first reporting period. No employees have received medical or religious exemptions.

As of Thursday, 71.3% of Harris County adults 18 and older were fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

In cities outside of Texas where vaccine mandates are in effect, officials have struggled to implement them. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's vaccine mandate for city employees was met with protests and a lawsuit brought by the police union. As of Nov. 1, 9,000 employees were on unpaid leave and 12,000 had filed for exemptions, de Blasio said. Ninety-four percent of city employees had been vaccinated by Nov. 18, according to the New York City mayor's office.

Representatives for the fire union did not return requests for comment.

See the full compliance list below:

 

A chart shows the highest and lowest performing vaccine mandate compliance rates for city of Houston employees. Among the lowest are Houston fire and police department employees.
Source: City of Houston Human Resources

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