L.A. City Council to vote on requiring COVID-19 vaccine for city employees

L.A. City Council to vote on requiring COVID-19 vaccine for
city employees 1

Los Angeles city employees would have to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by early October unless they are granted an exemption for medical or religious reasons, under a new ordinance up for a vote Wednesday at the City Council.

The proposed law permits people with medical conditions or “sincerely held religious beliefs” that prevent them from getting the shots to seek an exemption, requiring regular testing for such employees.

However, it does not allow L.A. municipal employees to simply opt for testing if they wish to avoid getting vaccinated for other reasons, because “the city’s goal is to have a vaccinated workforce,” the proposal states.

Under the proposal, getting vaccinated is a condition of city employment and a “minimum requirement for all employees” unless they are approved for an exemption.

The L.A. ordinance does not explicitly spell out what happens if someone refuses to get vaccinated without an approved exemption or balks at other requirements. Santa Clara County, in contrast, stated in a memo that employees who fail to comply with its vaccination requirements are “subject to release or discharge from county employment.”

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Making vaccination a condition of employment indicates that unless a worker obtains an exemption, “there will be repercussions that could include ending your employment,” said Jonathan F. Harris, an associate professor at Loyola Law School who specializes in employment law.

But because L.A. city employees are unionized, that process is likely to be hashed out in bargaining over how the law affects employees, Harris said. The proposed law specifically states that one of its provisions — restrictions on promoting or transferring workers who flout the rules — will not go into effect until the city has wrapped up the bargaining process.

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The L.A. City Council is poised to vote on the proposed law as a host of employers, both public and private, have announced that their workers must be vaccinated against COVID-19. Health officials have pleaded for more people to get the shots as the highly transmissible Delta variant has spread, driving up cases and hospitalizations.

“We need unvaccinated Angelenos to stop dragging their feet,” City Council President Nury Martinez said when L.A. first announced its plans. “As the largest employer in the city of Los Angeles, this is us doing our part.”

As the Delta variant continues to spread, “it is more important than ever that people get vaccinated as soon as they can,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement Tuesday. The new requirements “will help protect the health and safety of those who keep our city running and the Angelenos who rely on the services they provide every day.”

The L.A. ordinance also leaves the door open for requiring booster shots, stating that they may be required for employees in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health authorities.

The push has alarmed some city employees: When an L.A. city committee focused on employee relations took up the issue last month, some workers phoned in to the meeting to argue against it, expressing concerns about COVID-19 vaccines.

“I just — please — don’t want to be forced to be vaccinated or have the potential of losing my job. I’ve dreamed about this job since I was about 9, 10 years old,” one caller said.

Labor unions have raised concerns about the proposal. Freddy Escobar, president of UFLAC Local 112 representing L.A. city firefighters and paramedics, said the union is continuing to encourage members to get vaccinated, “but we do not support any city policies that would make it a condition of employment.”

The Los Angeles Police Protective League board of directors said in a statement Tuesday that it had “many questions and concerns as to how this ordinance will impact our members and we are working to ensure our members are treated fairly.” An LAPPL spokesman did not immediately elaborate on its concerns.

And SEIU Local 721, which represents a range of L.A. city workers including custodians and sanitation workers, wants employees to be able to opt for regular COVID-19 testing instead of vaccination for reasons besides medical and religious exemptions, according to a union spokesman.

Union President David Green said they strongly encourage employees to get vaccinated, but will advocate for “a robust and frequent testing option for all workers who have yet to be vaccinated.”

L.A.’s proposed ordinance says employees who are exempted must undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, which will be provided free during work hours, if they regularly report to a worksite. If they are telecommuting, they will need to get tested on an “as-needed basis” whenever they are asked to report to a site.

The proposed law also states that L.A. city employees who aren’t fully vaccinated must wear masks and keep their distance from others at worksites or when interacting with the public, unless it is “physically hazardous” to do so. Los Angeles Police Department officers have been repeatedly filmed without masks despite a directive to wear them in public, angering critics who say that officers are jeopardizing public health amid lagging vaccination rates reported by the department.

Attorney Richard W. Warren, a principal at the firm Miller Canfield who represents companies in employment litigation, said the “lack of a concrete sanction” in the L.A. ordinance could give the city an argument that it does not need to bargain with unions over the vaccination policy itself, although unions could insist it has to bargain over its effects on employees.

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Warren said the city may have decided to “go ahead and provide the mandatory ordinance, but leave the sanctions to be discussed with the union.”

U.S. courts have upheld laws requiring vaccination. Ben Feuer, a California-based lawyer who argues appeals for both employers and employees, said that as long as union contracts don’t hinder such rules and alternatives are provided to workers with bonafide religious objections or disabilities, employers can mandate COVID-19 shots.

“I don’t anticipate even our more conservative Supreme Court is going to broadly prohibit governments or states from requiring vaccines,” Feuer said.

In a recent letter to its members, the legal defense fund for the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California — a professional federation of law enforcement agencies — addressed questions about such mandates.

“Can you be terminated if you refuse to get the vaccine? The short answer is yes,” the letter said.

Times staff writers Maura Dolan and Kevin Rector contributed to this report.

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