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Sheriff warns vaccine mandate causing 'mass exodus' among personnel

LA Times logo LA Times 10/31/2021 Priscella Vega
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva says the county's vaccination mandate is causing a "mass exodus" from his department. (Nick Agro / For The Times) © (Nick Agro / For The Times) Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva says the county's vaccination mandate is causing a "mass exodus" from his department. (Nick Agro / For The Times)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva continues to rail against the county's vaccine mandate, warning it is causing a "mass exodus" in his department and threatens public safety at a time when violent crime is on the rise.

"I have repeatedly stated the dangers to public safety when 20%-30% of my workforce is no longer available to provide service, and those dangers are quickly becoming a reality," Villanueva said in a prepared statement that he posted on social media last week. "We are experiencing an increase in unscheduled retirements, worker compensation claims, employees quitting, and a reduction in qualified applicants."

As a result, he said, homicide rates in the county would continue to rise, while response times increase and patrol services decline.

"With the pandemic waning, there is no justification for the Board mandate," Villanueva said. "It is like putting up the storm windows after the storm has passed."

Under an executive order ratified by the Board of Supervisors in August, all Los Angeles County employees were required to register their vaccination status by Oct. 1 on an online portal, though religious and medical exceptions are allowed.

As of Friday, more than 90% of the county's employees, including 79% of sheriff's department workers, had registered their status, Michael Wilson, a county spokesman, said in an emailed statement to The Times. He did not say whether the county is tracking how many employees have resigned or retired early specifically over the vaccine mandate.

"The county expects all department heads to encourage their employees to register as an important public health measure to protect workers and the public we serve," Wilson said. "The vaccination policy is intended to save lives, not to punish employees based on their vaccination status."

More than half of the sheriff's department's 16,084 employees are fully vaccinated, according to preliminary data collected by the county. Nearly 300 are semi-vaccinated. Another 2,327 employees are not vaccinated, while 1,843 are seeking exemptions.

Of the sheriff's 9,656 sworn personnel, 3,942 are fully vaccinated, according to county records. There are 188 workers who are semi-vaccinated, while 1,698 are not vaccinated and nearly 1,369 are seeking exemptions.

Of the department's 6,428 civilian employees, 4,238 are fully vaccinated, according to county data. About 100 are semi-vaccinated and 629 are not vaccinated. Another 474 workers are seeking exemptions.

Notices are being sent out in batches to county employees who have not complied with the vaccination policy, Wilson said. The notice lets them know they must comply with the mandate within 45 days of receiving note.

After that time, employees who still have not shown their proof of vaccination or sought an exemption will get a five-day suspension, Wilson said. Employees then have 30 days once they return from their suspension to comply.

Employees who fail to register are being reminded they must do so and begin testing within five days of the notice or face discipline, Wilson said.

"It is our hope that 100% of our workforce will comply with the policy and register in the system, and that those who wish to seek accommodations will take full advantage of the process that has been put in place for them to do so," Wilson said.

Los Angeles County is one of several jurisdictions across the state requiring employees to get vaccinated. The move prompted one police union — the Los Angeles Sheriff's Professional Assn., composed of about 1,850 members — to take legal action over the vaccination registration. The union is seeking a temporary restraining order.

Meanwhile, groups of Los Angeles police officers and firefighters have filed lawsuits against the city, alleging its vaccination mandate violates their rights and ignores the protection some of them enjoy from antibodies obtained through previous COVID-19 infection. The City Council voted last week to extend the deadline to Dec. 18 for city workers to show proof of vaccination or face disciplinary action.

The LAPD has seen more than 3,000 employees fall ill from COVID-19, and as of last week had more than 100 personnel at home recovering, said LAPD Chief Michel Moore. About 74% of LAPD employees have had at least one dose of a vaccine, he said.

But recent data showed that hundreds of officers still have not told the department whether they are vaccinated.

The county's vaccination mandate came as the state grappled with a surge of coronavirus cases triggered by the emergence of the highly infectious Delta variant.

In recent weeks, the number of weekly coronavirus cases and hospitalizations across the state plateaued and the transmission rate has been among the lowest in the country. Officials hope vaccine requirements and other safety rules will help prevent another spike in cases and deaths this winter, particularly during the holiday season.

In his statement addressed to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, Villanueva noted that his department personnel already wear masks and submit to regular COVID-19 testing.

"Personally, I am vaccinated and believe the vaccine works," he said, "but the choice to receive the vaccine is a personal one, and an individual who served the community tirelessly before there was a vaccine should not now be fired because they made a decision about their body."

Times staff writers Alene Tchekmedyian, Luke Money, Rong-Gong Lin II and Kevin Rector contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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