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LA County Moves To Make It Easier To Fire Unvaccinated Sheriff’s Deputies

L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva stands at a podium. He is wearing a uniform that includes a long-sleeved khaki shirt with epaulets and a black tie. His sheriff's badge is pinned over his heart, and sheriff's department badges can be seen on both sleeves. Partly visible behind him is a hanging insignia for the Los Angeles County Hall of Justice.
L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
(L.A. Sheriff's Department)
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Frustrated with Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s refusal to enforce the vaccination mandate for his employees, the County Board of Supervisors is moving to give the Director of Personnel the power to fire or otherwise discipline deputies and other sheriff’s personnel who refuse to get vaccinated.

Under the plan approved Tuesday, the personnel director would have the same authority over all 100,000 county employees. Right now, department heads are vested with the authority to terminate their employees.

The board voted 4-0, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger abstaining, to ask county lawyers to report back on March 15 with the necessary amendments to civil service rules.

Vaccination rates vary dramatically from department to department at the county. While more than 90% of employees in almost all departments were fully vaccinated by the beginning of the month, that number currently is 62% in the Sheriff’s Department, according to figures it provided to the county.

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It's unclear how accurate that number is, since Villanueva said in late November that his department would no longer participate in the county’s vaccination registration system because he feared the company running it would share genetic data with the Republic of China. Both the county and the company, Fulgent Genetics, said the sheriff’s claims were unfounded.

'We Have No Visibility'

Just 83% of Villanueva’s approximately 16,000 employees have registered their vaccination status with the county — that’s compared with nearly 96-100% in most other departments, according to the county.

“We have no visibility into how they’re complying or not complying” with the mandate, Director of Personnel Lisa Garrett told the board.

Villanueva took to social media Monday to decry the motion, declaring on Twitter and Facebook that the supervisors were getting ready to fire “4K from LASD.” The sheriff urged the public to call into the board meeting "to share your public safety concerns and stop this social experimentation!"

While encouraging his employees to get vaccinated, Villanueva maintains it should be their choice.

“If you will not take this matter seriously and enforce it in your department, the county Director of Personnel is willing to do so,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who co-authored the motion. “We are not going to permit county lives to be jeopardized by an individual decision not to comply with county policy,”

Kuehl noted the biggest killer of law enforcement officers across the country over the past two years has been COVID-19.

Overall, 83% of county employees are fully vaccinated.

Few Fired So Far

So far, the county has been in no rush to terminate employees. It's only fired 15 workers for failing to register their vaccination status or get tested, and no one has been let go for not getting vaccinated. But the board’s patience appears to be running out.

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Under the county’s mandate, employees may apply for religious or medical exemptions to getting the vaccine. The county provided data Tuesday on exemption requests, although it was unable to immediately break the numbers down by department:

Religious Exemptions

  • 4,740 county employees have requested a religious exemption
  • 2,099 requests have been granted
  • 231 requests have been denied
  • 2,410 requests are pending

Medical Exemptions

  • 579 county employees have requested a medical exemption
  • 296 requests have been granted
  • 113 requests have been denied
  • 170 requests are pending

If an employee is granted an exemption, they must be tested for COVID-19 regularly.

'A Sincerely Held Religious Belief'

To obtain a religious exemption, employees are asked to identify their “sincerely held religious belief(s), practice(s), or observance(s) that is/are the basis for your request,” the application states.

“A sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance is a belief, practice, or observance that can include theistic beliefs as well as non-theistic moral or ethical beliefs as to what is right and wrong which are sincerely held with the strength of traditional religious views. Social, political, or economic philosophies, as well as mere personal preferences, are not religious beliefs protected by law.”

In addition to the Sheriff’s Department, three other departments have relatively low vaccination rates. The Fire Department stands at 76%, Parks and Recreation is at 77%, and Probation is at 76%.

The low vaccination rate among sheriff’s personnel is having an effect on the workers compensation system. As of Jan. 29, 74% of the more than 5,000 COVID-19-related workers’ compensation claims filed by county employees have been filed by sheriff’s employees, according to the county.

“This data illustrates vaccinations’ vital role in limiting the spread of COVID-19 and thus, the urgent need to increase vaccination rates across the entire County workforce,” stated the board’s motion, which was co-authored by Supervisor Holly Mitchell.

“Increased compliance with the Policy is critical to combatting the COVID-19 emergency, as the virus remains an ongoing and evolving threat to the County workforce and community,” the motion states.

Barger said she abstained because “[t]o change now over one individual or one manager, I don’t feel is appropriate.”

The board also directed county lawyers to write a proposed ordinance that would prohibit the county from appointing unclassified employees “who are noncompliant with or have failed to enforce” the vaccine mandate.

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