L.A. mandate looms, but fate of unvaccinated employees remains unclear

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LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 22: In the Skid Row neighborhood the L.A. County Department of Health Services Housing for Health division and United Way of Greater L.A. host a COVID-19 vaccination clinic for residents experiencing homelessness in Downtown on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA.(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
The Los Angeles vaccination mandate has spurred sharp opposition from some city employees, including some police and firefighters. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles will officially require city workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Wednesday, as the new rules become conditions of employment.

But it remains unclear what will happen that day to those who have refused to get the shots. City leaders did not explicitly spell out in a recently approved ordinance what will happen on Wednesday if someone fails to get vaccinated or secure approval for a religious or medical exemption.

City officials have been in talks with employee unions for weeks about how the vaccination rules will affect workers but have yet to land on a specific plan for employees who refuse.

Officials in the Los Angeles Police Department, where 69% of employees had received at least one vaccine shot, said they hadn’t been given “any further direction on the ongoing negotiations with the unions” as of this week.

Los Angeles Police Protective League spokesperson Tom Saggau said the police union and the city “are negotiating in good faith to find a reasonable path that protects the health and safety of our officers and the residents we serve.”

“We continue to be engaged and hope to find a resolution soon,” Saggau said.

Mayor Eric Garcetti also appeared upbeat about negotiations with unions.

“While we’re not backing away from our strong requirement and advocacy for this, we’re listening,” Garcetti said Wednesday, adding that the city needs its firefighters and police officers to be on duty.

The process has played out more slowly than anticipated in the ordinance: Last month, the city pushed back a deadline in the ordinance for employees to seek medical or religious exemptions. More than 5,300 employees said they plan to seek exemptions, according to city figures provided this week. That process is ongoing, with the city continuing to obtain and review paperwork for the requests.

As of last month, a huge share of employees — roughly 40% — had not informed the city of their vaccination status, even though Garcetti told reporters that the deadline to do so had passed.

By this week, that number appeared to have fallen significantly and thousands more employees had reported that they were at least partially vaccinated.

More than 66% of city workers — excluding those at the Department of Water and Power — were at least partially vaccinated as of this week, a Times analysis of city data found. (The Times analysis excluded DWP employees because the city data did not include complete information for that department.)

A Department of Water and Power representative said that about 7,284 employees, or about 64% of the utility’s total employees, were fully vaccinated.

But many employees still had not disclosed their status. For instance, city figures indicated that more than 1,000 Los Angeles Fire Department employees had not provided any information on their status as of this week.

LAFD Chief Ralph Terrazas sent an order to such employees, warning that failing to report their status “will be considered insubordination and will result in discipline up to and including discharge.” It was the second such order sent by Terrazas over the reporting rules.

The vaccination mandate has spurred sharp opposition from some employees, including some police and firefighters who have sued the city over the requirements. Attorney Kevin McBride, who represents 871 firefighters and already has a lawsuit pending on behalf of that group over the city’s vaccination mandate, filed a new claim against the city.

McBride, in the claim, says that each of the firefighters will seek $2.5 million, for a total of more than $2 billion, against the city.

The claim says the LAFD has told firefighters that Wednesday is the “hard deadline” for firefighters to receive the vaccine and that anyone who is “not fully vaccinated by October 20 will be sent home for 5 days, without pay.” That would be followed by an unpaid “reconsideration period,” and if firefighters are still not vaccinated after another five days, they will be terminated, the claim says.

When asked about the suspension and termination process outlined in the claim, City Administrative Officer Matt Szabo said he could not comment on what proposals were being discussed with labor unions.

City Council President Nury Martinez also declined to comment on what had been discussed. She said she remained optimistic, crediting vaccination clinics offered by the city with assisting more workers to get the shots.

“We’re seeing some good movement,” Martinez said.

Still, Martinez suggested holdouts could lose their jobs. Asked whether she was willing to support firing city employees who didn’t get vaccinated, Martinez said, “If that’s what we have to do, yes.”

Other jurisdictions have also been working out how to handle employees who straggle or refuse to follow vaccination mandates.

When San Jose reached a deadline for its vaccination mandate for city employees, the police union struck a deal to allow workers who still hadn’t gotten vaccinated the option of getting tested for COVID twice weekly on their own time and at their own expense.

Such workers also have to take an unpaid suspension lasting the equivalent of a week. If San Jose employees still aren’t vaccinated by the end of December — and don’t have an approved religious or medical exemption — they could face termination.

In Oregon, tens of thousands of state workers received additional time to comply with a vaccination mandate.

In San Francisco, officials said workers who missed its recent deadline would go through a hearing process that could result in termination. And in Chicago, the mayor has gone to court against the head of its police union for telling officers to ignore a deadline to report their vaccination status.

Times staff writers Kevin Rector and Ben Welsh contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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