Unvaccinated L.A. city workers will have more time to get COVID-19 shots

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LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14, 2021: Los Angeles City Hall on Spring St. in downtown Los Angeles is seen in the background as people play soccer at Grand Park. Los Angeles will officially require its city workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as the vaccination and reporting rules become "conditions of city employment," according to its ordinance. But it remains unclear what will happen to those who have refused to get the shots. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
A plan approved by the City Council gives workers more time to receive a COVID-19 vaccination. Above, Los Angeles City Hall and Grand Park. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles police officers, firefighters and other city workers who have yet to get vaccinated against COVID-19 will have more time to get the shots under a plan approved Tuesday by the City Council.

City workers who still haven't followed the requirements at the end of Dec. 18 will face "corrective action," according to the plan. Until then, unvaccinated workers will have to get tested twice a week for the coronavirus, on their own time and at a cost of $65 per test deducted from their paychecks, according to the approved plan.

Workers seeking medical or religious exemptions will also have to get tested twice a week, but the city will reimburse them for testing costs if they are ultimately granted exemptions.

Although the plan gives city employees more time to get vaccinated, there could be swifter consequences for workers who refuse to follow it at all, according to City Administrative Officer Matt Szabo.

Under the plan, employees who have not shown that they are vaccinated or said they want an exemption will be required to sign a notice that instructs them to turn in proof of vaccination by Dec. 18. If they refuse to sign that notice, they could be handed a notice that begins the termination process, Szabo said. The plan states that failing to follow the requirements of the notice "shall result in appropriate and immediate corrective action."

Council members approved a resolution authorizing the plan to be carried out on a 13-0 vote without discussion. Councilman Joe Buscaino was absent.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement last week that the vaccine mandate "is critical to protecting the health and safety of our workforce and the Angelenos we serve."

"Employees must be vaccinated by Dec. 18, and we are putting a rigorous testing program into place in the meantime. Let me be clear: Any employee who refuses to be vaccinated by this date should be prepared to lose their job," the mayor said.

Council members passed an ordinance in August that required city employees to get vaccinated against COVID unless they are approved for a medical or religious exemption. Those rules became conditions of city employment last week, but the law did not spell out what would happen, at that time, to people who refused to get vaccinated.

Officials released their plan after weeks of meetings between city leaders and labor unions, describing it as their "last, best and final offer" on how the vaccine requirements would work.

To implement the plan, the council passed a resolution Tuesday finding that the city had reached a stalemate and that "there is a compelling need for such unilateral action to protect public health and safety and workplace safety."

A spokesman for the Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents a range of city employees including sanitation workers, custodians and mechanics, said that after months of negotiations, "we've exhausted all pathways to an agreement."

Although the union strongly encourages its members to get vaccinated, “we have not agreed to the city’s vaccine mandate ordinance, and we have not agreed to how they are implementing it," spokesman Mike Long said.

"Through the bargaining process, we have been able to mitigate impacts to our members," including extending the vaccination deadline and ensuring medical and religious exemptions are available, Long added. "In an effort to increase vaccination rates among city employees and address vaccine hesitancy, we convinced city management to provide experts at worksites to share data and facts about the vaccines and to answer workers’ questions."

The Los Angeles Police Protective League board also said last week that it had successfully negotiated for key terms, including not creating a disciplinary record for police officers who are eventually terminated for failing to get vaccinated.

On Tuesday, however, the police union called for an investigation into a contract awarded by the city for COVID testing, raising concerns about the company being co-owned by an appointed member of the Board of Fire and Police Pension Commissioners who has made political donations to city officials.

The union complained the city had balked at letting employees get tested by other firms, saying that "the unflinching resistance to these common-sense, reasonable alternatives is now disgustingly clear."

Commissioner Pedram Salimpour, who said he and his brother were among the owners of the company, said that he had complied with "applicable ethics laws" and that "the allegations made by LAPPL are fortunately false."

The L.A. city personnel department said in a statement that it had vetted seven vendors and chose that firm because "it was the only company that was able to offer the variety of needed services at a competitive rate" and had a proven record with other area governments.

The vaccination requirements for city workers have spurred a lawsuit from a group of Los Angeles Police Department employees challenging the mandate. A group of firefighters has also filed suit over the vaccine, arguing that the ordinance violates their rights.

Los Angeles officials had initially pushed for harsher penalties for workers who ignored or defied the rules, city records show: An earlier proposal called for them to face five days of suspension for insubordination, then be served with a proposed notice of termination if they returned without having made "substantial progress toward compliance."

Some jurisdictions have taken a harder line than L.A., including Chicago, which began to put police officers on unpaid status last week. San Jose, which also offered more time for unvaccinated employees who had not complied with its stated deadlines, required those workers to take an unpaid suspension lasting the equivalent of a week.

Highland Park resident Brianne Amato complained in a letter to L.A. officials that "by delaying vaccination requirements, the council would be voting to extend a public health crisis."

"By extending the deadline, the council would also be voting to allow the senseless deaths of officers to continue," Amato wrote. "For our children too young to have vaccine protection, for the very old, for the immunocompromised: don't let the unions bully the council into extending the deadline."

Others have balked at the plan because it could lead to termination for unvaccinated employees. Some employees phoned in to the Tuesday meeting to argue that the vaccination requirements were unfair and overreaching. One who identified herself as a police dispatcher warned that terminating employees would worsen staff shortages in the dispatch center.

"If the citizens think it's a tragedy now, waiting two minutes for an operator to answer while their family member is dying from a heart attack, imagine the outrage when there's no one to answer for several minutes and more people start dying," she said.

Another city employee, Gabriela Ramirez, wrote to the council that "there are other ways to mitigate risks instead of shutting down everyone who has reasonable and valid concerns about the vaccine."

"All of us want to continue working. How could possibly firing large groups of employees be helping the city of L.A.'s commitment to service?" Ramirez wrote.

As of Monday, nearly 73% of city employees — not including workers at the Department of Water and Power — were at least partially vaccinated, according to a Times analysis of city data.

Nearly 12% of city workers reported that they were unvaccinated and an additional 15% had not provided information on their vaccination status. The vaccination numbers have ticked upward since last week, as thousands more employees provided information to the city on whether they had gotten the shots.

Officials said nearly 5,000 city employees are now planning to pursue medical or religious exemptions. Employees can also get a "medical deferral" for vaccination if they have recently been diagnosed with or were treated for COVID-19.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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