In August, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles City Council decided that all city employees absolutely, positively had to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Wednesday.
Well, the deadline came and went, and nearly 30% of city workers hadn't complied, either because they refused to get vaccinated or wouldn't disclose their vaccination status. And what happened? Nothing. So much for consequences.
Instead, city leaders want to give employees a two-month-long last chance to get the shots. And if they still don’t comply, then City Hall would start to get serious and impose “corrective action.” Whatever that is. The city’s outline for enforcing the vaccinate mandate doesn’t exactly spell out the consequences for flouting this vital workplace safety law, though it does suggest that at some point some employees could be terminated. That’s not exactly a convincing ultimatum.
Compare the city's sad situation to that of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Also in August, the nation’s second-largest school district announced that all employees had to be fully vaccinated by mid-October. As the deadline approached, well over 10,000 employees hadn’t reported their vaccination status, and it looked like there might be a mass exodus of teachers and school workers.
Instead, thousands of district employees decided at the last minute to get vaccinated, resulting in 99% compliance among classroom teachers and 97% of all employees by last Friday's deadline. (The compliance rate includes workers who have an approved medical or religious exemption.) At least some of the workers who refused to get vaccinated have been fired. Now LAUSD can continue the business of educating children with fewer coronavirus cases and less risk to staff, students and their families.
The point is, vaccine mandates work. Faced with the choice of a job or a jab, most people will take the pragmatic route and get the shots. It often takes a deadline to force people to confront their hesitancy, get off the fence and act. The shot clock is pushing workers to take a simple step to help end a pandemic that has killed nearly 730,000 people in the U.S.
That’s why it is so frustrating to see Los Angeles leaders back off their vaccine mandate deadline. Instead of holding firm to important public health protections, they have bent to recalcitrant employees — particularly in the Los Angeles police and fire departments, where roughly a quarter of personnel remain unvaccinated, and in the sanitation department. City officials admitted they were concerned that immediately suspending or firing hundreds of police officers, firefighters and sanitation workers could have serious impacts.
So now they’re buying time. Under a plan hashed out by City Administrative Officer Matt Szabo with employee unions that needs final approval from the City Council, unvaccinated workers would have until Dec. 18 to turn in proof of full vaccination. Employees could apply for medical or religious exemptions.
Until then, unvaccinated employees would be required to get tested twice a week for the coronavirus. To tighten the screws on vaccine hesitaters, the cost of the tests would be deducted from their paychecks at $65 per test and the swabs taken on their own time, not during their work hours. Workers who get an approved medical or religious exemption would have their testing costs reimbursed by the city.
It shouldn’t take a mandate to persuade people — especially front-line public safety workers — to get vaccinated to protect themselves and those around them. But as LAUSD's experience suggests, mandates — real ones with teeth — may be the only way to motivate city workers to do the right thing.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.