'Targeted overreach': County can now bypass L.A. sheriff to fire unvaccinated deputies

Sheriff Alex Villanueva has refused to fire noncompliant deputies, calling mandates an “imminent threat” to staffing


By Ryan Carter
Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — Despite allegations that it was “targeted overreach,” Los Angeles County Supervisors on Tuesday, April 5, empowered the county’s personnel director to fire employees who do not comply with the county’s COVID-19 vaccination policy or directives.

The action — 4-1, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger dissenting — was the follow-up to an earlier board action. Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Holly Mitchell first introduced the proposal in February, citing lax compliance with the vaccine mandate in the sheriff’s department. At the time, they said more than 81% of the county’s 100,000 employees were fully vaccinated, but the rate was less than 60% in the sheriff’s department.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announces he will not enforce the county's vaccine mandate and claimed his employees will leave the agency in droves rather than get their shots during a news conference in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva announces he will not enforce the county's vaccine mandate and claimed his employees will leave the agency in droves rather than get their shots during a news conference in Los Angeles, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Stefanie Dazi)

Back then, the board voted 4-0, with Barger abstaining, to direct attorneys to work with the county’s CEO and personnel director to develop proposed amendments to county Civil Service rules. The goal: Give the personnel director “overriding authority to discipline the employees of any county department for noncompliance with the county’s policy or directives related to the policy.”

Rule 18.10 — which the county’s counsel said was hashed out between county administrators and labor groups — now does just that, despite cries from Sheriff Alex Villanueva that the move will deliver a “deathblow” to his department.

Critics of the rule said promised collaboration between union representatives and county leaders to partner on the effort never happened.

[EARLIER: Retaining unvaccinated L.A. deputies won't be sheriff's call anymore, county says]

“The COVID-19 pandemic, like many other issues in society, currently is defined by emotion,” said Tab Rhodes, Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association. “Many of our membership have already been vaccinated or as frontline responders suffered the effects of COVID 19, presumably now having antibodies against future infections. Others have strong feelings related to the vaccine and its other long-term effects.”

Rhodes called the action a “targeted overreach by members of this board to undermine the authority of one person — an elected department head whose actions are not in line with the board’s wishes … .”

Throughout the pandemic, Sheriff Villanueva has rejected the county’s employee  vaccine mandate, even as coronavirus rates surged.

In Nov. 21, the department characterized the mandate as an “imminent threat” to staffing at his department at a time when the agency was already dealing with retirements, attrition and other departures.

Villanueva stated the reason for the low vaccination numbers was many did not have faith in the vaccine. For others, Villanueva alleged there was a “political ideology behind the vaccine.”

The sheriff said 4,185 Sheriff staff members, both sworn and professional, who would be subject to termination because of the vaccine mandate; 3,137 of the 4,185 are sworn deputies.

Moreover, sheriff’s employees stopped inputting vaccination information into the county’s registration platform, making it difficult to even know the extent to which the department was complying, he said.

The COVID context in February was different from the current scenario. The region was still reeling from a winter explosion of cases and death fueled by the omicron variant.

Now, the county has been deemed in a “low” community level of strain on the hospital, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and case rates and hospitalizations have plummeted.

But as encouraging as the low numbers have been, public health and some county leaders are wary. Also since February has come an acknowledgment that COVID-19 may likely never be totally squashed.

In fact, the potential for further variants looms in a region where less than 40% of children 5 to 11 have been vaccinated and 1.7 million residents 5 and older  have not received a shot at all.

Moreover, Ferrer said there are troubling vaccination gaps — such as in northern LA County in Antelope Valley and in South L.A., including Florence-Firestone and Watts. Booster coverage in most of the county is hovering at 60%.

“Our rates are beginning to level off and cases are no longer declining,” said L.A. County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday.

The rule gives the personnel director “overriding authority to discipline the employees of any county department for noncompliance with the county’s policy or directives related to the policy.”

The authority would be ceded if the department head refuses to enforce the policy, triggering the overriding power of the personnel director to enforce.

The proposed amendments would give employees several chances to actually get vaccinated or register for an exemption in the county’s system before facing termination:

–A reminder;

–A warning/write-up;

–A suspension without pay for five days;

–After that, an employee would have 45 days to get vaccinated and register the proof; and

–If still not compliant, termination would be possible.

Under the current rules, the county’s charter gives authority to discipline employees to individual department heads. On Oct. 1, all county employees were  required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 unless there’s a medical or religious reason prevents it.

“I acknowledge that these vaccines are not 100% effective and that there have been thousands and thousands of people with breakthrough cases,” Ferrer said. “But the vaccines do provide significant protections.”

As of mid-March, unvaccinated people were twice as likely to become infected with COVID-19 than those fully vaccinated, ferrer said. They are also five times less likely to be hospitalized. And they were 11 times less likely to die from COVID-19.

Vaccines, she said, remain the “most powerful tool.”

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