October 27, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

L.A. pols want COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers

A growing number of Los Angeles politicians want to require city workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as infection numbers have resurged, a step already announced in New York, San Francisco and Pasadena.

“It is well past time that we act,” Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district stretches from Crenshaw to Koreatown, said Monday.

The pandemic “is not retreating,” Ridley-Thomas said, “and the best defense to date are the vaccinations. So why wouldn’t we do all that we can to avoid the calamity that we were confronted with no more than five months ago?”

Ridley-Thomas said he planned to introduce a motion Wednesday directing city staffers to draw up a policy requiring all city employees to be fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

Council President Nury Martinez said she had called for a special meeting this week of a council committee focused on employee relations to discuss a vaccine mandate for all L.A. city employees.

“I support having all city workers vaccinated,” said Martinez, whose district includes the San Fernando Valley neighborhoods of Arleta, Sun Valley and Panorama City.

And Councilman Kevin de León, whose district reaches from downtown to Eagle Rock, also threw his support to a vaccine mandate.

“There’s no question in my mind that the city of L.A. should model to the state and the nation that we will do everything within our power to keep our city workers and neighbors safe,” he said.

De León said the city should mandate that its employees get vaccinated for COVID-19 by a set date but said he had not yet worked out what should happen if city employees fail to do so.

Ridley-Thomas likewise said that crucial question needs to be “carefully vetted,” with advice from labor representatives, the city attorney and other city departments. He said he expected that the issue would be before the council this week, as concerns mount over L.A. falling short of the vaccination levels needed to squelch the spread of the virus.

Lagging vaccination rates among police officers and firefighters have raised particular concern because they regularly interact with the public.

As of Monday, L.A. had yet to impose any requirement on city workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Mayor Eric Garcetti “has been working urgently with city stakeholders toward policy changes to increase the employee vaccination rate and make the workplace safer for everyone,” his spokesman Alex Comisar said in a statement. “He will be discussing this in more detail very soon.”

California officials announced Monday that state and healthcare employees will soon be required to show proof they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 or face regular testing. State employees who don’t provide proof of vaccination will be tested for coronavirus infection at least once a week, according to the California Department of Human Resources.

The same day, New York City announced that all city workers would need to provide proof of vaccination or undergo weekly testing beginning in mid-September.

San Francisco, in turn, said in June that it would require city employees to get vaccinated as a condition of employment, with exemptions for religious or medical reasons. Pasadena has announced a similar plan. Both hinge on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granting formal approval for at least one of the vaccines that have received emergency authorization at this point.

L.A. City Councilman Gil Cedillo said Monday that COVID-19 vaccination should be required for L.A. city employees. “How do you engender confidence from the public,” he asked, “if you’re not assuring that the people providing services are vaccinated?”

Councilwoman Nithya Raman also supports a vaccination mandate for city workers, and her office is in talks with city analysts about legislation “pending FDA approval,” said her spokeswoman, Stella Stahl. When asked if a vaccine requirement would depend on whether the federal agency formally approved the vaccines, Stahl said they were discussing all their options.

And Councilman Bob Blumenfield expressed support for mandating vaccines for at least some city employees, saying in a statement that “if you are coming to work at a city facility and are engaging with Angelenos, vaccinations should be required.”

But Blumenfield cautioned that L.A. must determine exactly what it can legally require, “because the last thing we want is to have an unenforceable, potentially unconstitutional mandate.”

Key questions before the city could include whether to make any vaccination requirement contingent on formal approval from the FDA and whether to give unvaccinated employees an alternative of getting regularly tested.

“From a legal perspective, if you can accommodate someone who otherwise is resisting compulsory vaccination, it gives them less to argue about” in court, said Michael Jenkins, a lecturer at USC Gould School of Law. “It essentially narrows the potential for a lawsuit.”

Ridley-Thomas, however, said that requiring unvaccinated employees to be regularly tested would be insufficient given the highly contagious nature of the Delta variant.

The question of whether government agencies can mandate a vaccine that has emergency authorization from the FDA — rather than formal approval — has been a key part of legal arguments being made in court by public employees challenging such requirements, said Lindsay Wiley, a professor at American University Washington College of Law focusing on public health law.

Such issues “are being actively litigated right now,” Wiley said. But “so far, courts have not seemed to be particularly receptive to the arguments” challenging other vaccine mandates.

Representatives of Los Angeles unions said they were awaiting details on any proposed vaccination requirement. Mike Long, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 721, said the union would be meeting with city officials this week to “discuss their intention on a vaccine mandate for city employees.”

The union, which represents a range of city employees including sanitation workers, custodians and mechanics, “will have a position once we have more details,” Long said.

United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112 President Freddy Escobar said the union strongly encourages firefighters to get vaccinated, but “we do not support a mandatory policy at this time.”

And the Los Angeles Police Protective League board of directors said in a statement that it had yet to see any proposed policy, “but we are prepared to meet and confer with the city to discuss any proposal and to ensure our members are treated fairly.”

L.A. County has not put in place a vaccination mandate for its employees, but a spokeswoman for Supervisor Holly Mitchell said that the recent announcements by California and Pasadena officials indicate that such a requirement could be on the horizon.

“There is a trend that we can’t ignore, and it’s going to come over to the county at some point,” said Lenee Richards, chief communications officer for Mitchell.

Supervisor Janice Hahn came out in support of a vaccine mandate Monday. “Our county employees work directly with the public and they should get vaccinated, not only for their own health but the health of the communities they serve,” Hahn said.