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Police to follow city’s lead on possible vaccine mandate-podcast

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

Police forces in Los Angeles County and across the country are pushing back against vaccine mandates, leaving some to wonder whether Claremont could see a similar backlash when and if a similar edict is issued here.

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said he won’t enforce the mandate issued by L.A. County Supervisors that his roughly 10,000 officers and 5,800 civilian employees must vaccinate or submit to regular testing.

Los Angeles Police Department is facing a city mandate that its 9,473 officers and 2,670 civilian personnel be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing, and Chief Michel Moore says about 75% of his workforce has complied thus far. Moore said his goal is 100% compliance by the middle of December, but added the department is drafting plans for accommodations for employees who request religious or medical exemptions.

All this against the grim backdrop of COVID-19 — by a massive margin — being the top cause of death for police officers in the United States in both 2020 and 2021, with 253 dying from the disease in 2020 and 269 so far this year.
Meanwhile, in our little ‘burg 40 miles east of L.A., the 39 officers and 32 civilian employees that make up the Claremont Police Department have thus far been, well, immune to the vaccine drama.

The Claremont Police Department is a city agency. At the moment, Claremont does not have a vaccine mandate for its 208 employees, which include the police department.

The city, like Claremont Unified School District, has throughout the pandemic followed state and county health department guidance on the implementation of COVID safety requirements.

“When it comes to the workplace, we’re governed by [The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or Cal/OSHA], and we look to them for guidance when it comes to mandates in the workplace,” said Claremont City Manager Adam Pirrie. “We follow their current guidance at the moment.”

A federal mandate, due to go into effect January 4, 2022 says all employers with more than 100 employees must require employees to vaccinate or submit to weekly testing. The city of Claremont would theoretically fall into that category. The fed’s mandate is being challenged though, and it’s unclear whether or not the potential legal hurdles will hold up its January 4 implementation in California.

“Cal/OSHA hasn’t indicated one way or the other whether they are going to implement a vaccine mandate of their own, so we’re kind of just waiting to see what Cal/OSHA decides to do,” Pirrie said.

Former Claremont Chief of Police Shelley Vander Veen said at the November 4 police commission meeting she did not know how many of the department’s 39 officers and 32 civilian employees had been vaccinated, as those records are confidential.

Individual vaccination records for police personnel are protected under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, Vander Veen said, “But there is a potential that our city personnel department could look at what percentage of our staff is vaccinated. I personally do not know that information.”

The city has not yet had any pushback from employees about a possible vaccination mandate, but is prepared for that eventuality should it come to pass, Pirrie said.

“We haven’t spoken to them about it specifically, but there was a point at which we asked people to voluntarily disclose their vaccination status, and employees were uncomfortable — not necessarily with the vaccine mandates or the vaccinations themselves, but with their private health information being out there. So, there are likely concerns about the mandates themselves, but I think the security of medical information is also a concern, even among employees who are willing to be vaccinated.”

On August 11, California issued a mandate that public school employees must either vaccinate or submit to weekly testing by October 15. At least three of Claremont Unified School District’s 700-plus employees requested religious exemptions from the mandate and were offered a year off without pay as an accommodation. It would track that the city, with its 208 employees, may see a few objections as well.

Pirrie said the city has no mechanisms in place for dealing with possible employee pushback against a mandate, but will soon be discussing the topic internally.

New Claremont Police Chief Aaron Fate said Tuesday his force will follow the lead of the city.

“We wouldn’t do our own thing without direction from the city,” Fate said. “What I would say, Mick, is I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t see something come from the state sometime soon, some sort of unified guidance when it comes to all public agencies.”

California’s recent public school employee mandate certainly had its detractors. But considering its size — with more than 600,000 teachers, administrators and other school employees statewide — the transition hasn’t been as rough as one might have expected. Still, opening that can of worms with respect to all public employees, including police, will likely generate a considerable amount of pushback, as we’ve seen here in Los Angeles and in other states and municipalities.

“Part of that — the can of worms part — is there are a lot of cities in California, and if each one is doing its own separate thing, then it makes it a little bit confusing,” Fate said. “I would guess that you would see the opinions and makeups of police departments reflect what the public at large is feeling and saying. People have very strong opinions on all sides of it, so whenever you have a topic like that it does present challenges.”

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