LOS ANGELES - In a move prompted by Sheriff Alex Villanueva's refusal to enforce a vaccine mandate for deputies, the county Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance Tuesday giving the county personnel director overriding authority to discipline any employees who fail to comply with the requirement.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Holly Mitchell 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.
"Unsurprisingly, approximately 74% of the more than 5,000 COVID-19-related workers' compensation claims filed by county employees as of Jan. 29, 2022, have been filed by employees in the sheriff's department," according to the motion. "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."
The authority to discipline — or terminate — employees who violate the mandate previously rested with individual department heads, such as the sheriff. But Kuehl and Mitchell argued in their motion that the arrangement "has allowed for inconsistent application and enforcement of the policy and wide variety from department to department."
The ordinance was approved Tuesday on a 4-1 vote, with Supervisor Kathryn Barger dissenting. Barger said in February she opposed the adoption of such a countywide ordinance aimed at a single department head — Villanueva.
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Villanueva has repeatedly spoken out against the county's vaccine mandate, saying it would decimate the ranks of what he calls an already depleted department. He said deputies should have the option of undergoing regular testing rather than being forced to get vaccinated.
He told the board in February the shift in disciplinary authority would be a "death blow to public safety in Los Angeles County" that would have little impact.
He argued that as of early February, his department's fully vaccinated members had tested positive for COVID-19 over the previous month at a rate of 3.46%. During that same period, unvaccinated department members tested positive at a rate of 3.83%.
"Your motion is going to seek to basically cause us to actually lose 4,000 employees, for a grand total of 0.4% improvement in positivity rate," he said. "(That) is not exactly benefit to public safety. We're coming off two years of a historically high 94% increase in homicide rate, 64% increase in grand theft auto. And this is just not sustainable. The current situation is not sustainable. The hiring freeze is not sustainable.
"... This is ill-advised, illogical and probably in the long run illegal," Villanueva said. "And by the time we figure out the legality of it, we're going to be past the pandemic, which will make the result irrelevant. I urge you to deescalate, dial back the rhetoric and find some common ground — testing or vaccination, and we're doing that right now."
Kuehl insisted, however, that employees' refusal to get vaccinated or at least request an exemption "really puts county lives at risk, and it is simply unacceptable."
"To protect county lives ... we have to enforce this mandate," she said. "Every department head must be serious about enforcing departmental and countywide policies. ... Not all of our department heads have recognized that this policy is critically necessary and will save lives. ... We are not going to permit county lives to be jeopardized by an individual decision not to comply with county policy. If you, county department head, will not take this seriously ... the county director of personnel is willing to do so."
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