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Pima County moves to fire 450 workers who haven't gotten COVID shots

80% of county gov't staffers working with 'vulnerable populations' are fully vaccinated against coronavirus

Nearly 450 Pima County employees who work with "vulnerable populations" and have not complied with a mandate to be vaccinated against COVID-19 could be served notices that they're being fired in the next few weeks.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors approved the mandate in October, which requires all county government employees whose jobs bring them into contact with "vulnerable populations" to get their vaccine shots. The policy covers mostly jail guards, medical staffers and employees who provide in-person services to children and the elderly.

While 80 percent of such workers are fully vaccinated, there are almost 450 who are not, said Jan Lesher, the chief deputy county administrator, in a memo to the supervisors this week.

Those county government workers can still get their COVID vaccinations and stay in their jobs, officials said. But if they do not, they won't be allowed to continue working after Dec. 31.

Lesher, who's the top county staffer while County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry remains out of the office recovering from severe bike-accident injuries, asked the supervisors to approve a plan to serve most of those unvaccinated staffers with notices of intent to terminate by Dec. 20.

There are 2,188 county staffers who were identified by their departments as working with vulnerable populations, Lesher said in the memo, which recommended that at their meeting next week, the supervisors direct the plan be carried out. Of those workers, 1,741 have been verified as being fully vaccinated, she said.

But beyond that 80 percent, there are 427 employees who have not gotten their shots, Lesher said in her memo, titled "Process for Off-Boarding Unvaccinated Staff who work with Vulnerable Populations."

They include 414 who are classified staffers, protected by merit system rules, and 13 unclassified workers. Beyond them, another 40 are still on probationary status as recent hires, and can be quickly let go, she said.

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"A total of 52 employees have requested a medical or religious accommodation," Lesher wrote.

In a Nov. 19 memo, Lesher indicated that the large county departments with the lowest vaccination rates were the the Sheriff's Department, with just 66 percent of employees vaccinated — 882 of 1,339 — and Natural Resources, with 78 percent (194 of 248 employees) having gotten their shots. All other county agencies were at 79 percent or more, except two smaller departments, the Treasurer's Office (18 of 25 staffers vaccinated) and the Constable's Office (10 of 13 vaccinated). More recent data was not available Thursday night.

Just 59 percent of the 550 Sheriff's Department employees working with vulnerable populations have gotten their vaccinations — nearly all guards at the county jail.

Those 225 workers make up the largest group that are subject to termination under the mandate, numbers from this week showed.

All employees affected by the vaccination mandate were informed on Nov. 18 that they would have to get their shots by Jan. 1 to remain in their jobs, she said. "The provides the employee six weeks in which to become fully vaccinated by either the two-dose series or single-dose series."

The number of employees subject to termination "will change over time as employees complete their vaccinations or provide proof of existing vaccination. Also, some may get an exemption," said county spokesman Mark Evans.

"It is our hope the number dwindles to zero before the deadline," he said.

No employees of the county courts system are included in the numbers, Lesher said, as a state Supreme Court determination on whether they are covered by the mandate is pending.

The termination process for the 414 classified workers includes providing them with a notice, allowing them time to make a case why they should not be fired, and another written notice that they have been involuntarily terminated, Lesher wrote.

The unclassified and probationary workers can be fired without a formal process, she said.

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If the supervisors give the go-ahead for the plan, the 52 workers who have already requested an exemption or accommodation based on medical or religious reasons can attempt to find another job in county government, but will not be allowed to work in positions that put them in contact with vulnerable populations, she said.

"The onus is on the unvaccinated employee to identify positions for which they qualify and to notify Human Resources," Lesher wrote. Her memo said that employees will not be allowed to continue to work in their current positions while they look for another county post, and that the head of a hiring department must agree to an unvaccinated worker's reappointment in a new post.

"Allowing sufficient time to conduct the terminations is imperative," she said. "Our rules require notice of the involuntary termination and an opportunity to be heard by the employee. Currently there are 414 potential involuntary terminations to implement."

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