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386 Pima County workers will get firing notices for not getting COVID-19 shots

Supervisors vote 4-1 to fire unvaccinated gov't employees who work with 'vulnerable populations'

386 unvaccinated Pima County employees who work with "vulnerable populations" will be terminated from their current positions because they have not gotten vaccinated against COVID-19, following a vote of the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Termination notices will be delivered to those staffers — mostly corrections officers at the Pima County Jail — over the next two weeks, with employees still able to get their shots and comply with the vaccination mandate before they are fired.

The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 on Tuesday to deliver final notices of involuntary termination to unvaccinated employees by Dec. 31, while making room for a process that will give those employees a last opportunity to keep their current jobs.

In October, the supervisors mandated COVID vaccines for the 2,168 county employees who work with “vulnerable populations,” including children, the elderly and jail and juvenile detention populations. The deadline for workers to get their shots was set for Jan. 1, 2022.

At the meeting Tuesday, the county board approved a plan to being disciplinary measures against those workers who haven’t complied with that mandate. The single "no" vote from Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the board, who represents Vail and other parts of Eastern Pima County.

County employees can still get fully vaccinated before Dec. 31 and keep their jobs. The plan OKed Tuesday starts an “off-boarding process” that will last until the end of December and gives classified staffers a last opportunity to save their jobs by getting their shots or arguing why they shouldn’t lose their jobs during a 30-minute pre-action meeting. Workers who don't get vaccinated will have the opportunity to apply for county positions that don't include closely working with vulnerable people, but those moves will be subject to administrative approval.

The Sheriff’s Department will take the biggest hit, losing up to 216 employees, most of them corrections officers. There are 206 PCSD jail workers, ranging from corrections lieutenants to correction substitutes, who will lose their jobs because they have not gotten their shots.

No court staffers are included in the numbers released by the county because a state Supreme Court case deciding how vaccine mandates apply to them is still pending.

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The county has reported that 84 percent of their 6,279 active employees were fully vaccinated as of Monday, leaving almost 1,000 employees unvaccinated. 57 county employees have been granted exemptions.

The Sheriff’s Department has the lowest vaccination rate among county departments, with 66 percent of employees having gotten their shots. The next lowest rate is at the County Treasurer's Office, which has 25 active employees, seven of whom are unvaccinated. With more than 1,300 active employees, PCSD is the largest county department, more than twice as large as the next largest, the Superior Court system, which has 644 staffers.

Supervisor Christy challenged the plan to terminate unvaccinated jail guards as an “effort to release prisoners” by firing so many with “no sustainable plan to populate the prisons with corrections officers.”

Christy asked Acting County Administrator Jan Lesher “are unvaccinated uniformed corrections officers bad people?”

Lesher replied saying “I don’t believe we have a single county employee who is a bad person. They may have a difficult time separating themselves from vulnerable populations, and thus far, the board has established a policy that these individuals must be vaccinated by Jan.1.”

“The action taken is a requirement and an incentive to look at vaccinating our employees,” she said. “Not a judgment of whether someone is bad or a bad employee.”

Supervisor Matt Heinz, whose district covers Tuson's South Side and parts of Sahuarita, gave a harsher bottom line, saying, “If you’re going to be a threat…you cannot work for the county. We do not want you.”

“Of course, I don’t think these are bad people,” Heinz said. “I think they’re making bad decisions.”

Supervisor Rex Scott also questioned how Lesher and the County Administrator’s Office have been working with the Sheriff’s Department to prevent public safety threats with the loss of jail staff.

Lesher said she has been working with Sheriff Chris Nanos in the last weeks about the impact to public safety. County administration will not tell the Sheriff’s Department how to run the jail, she said, but they are working with local stakeholders involved in the criminal justice system to reduce jail populations, an effort that Lesher said is a continuation of county criminal justice reform funded by a MacArthur Foundation grant.

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There are no other specific recommendations at this point to help PCSD with the staffing loss, Lesher said, but the group working on criminal justice reform is hoping to help Nanos with “the population side of the equation.”

Scott also asked if there are any circumstances that would lead to someone who could be a threat to public safety being released from the jail because of staffing problems created by the mandate.

“There would never be anyone released who would be thought to be a threat to the community,” Lesher said.

More county workers getting vaccinated as deadline approaches

The numbers of unvaccinated county employees have been decreasing in recent weeks. In a Nov. 29 memo written by Lesher, the county reported that 427 county employees “appear” to be unvaccinated. That tally decreased to 386 by Monday, in the most recent numbers available.

The first notices of intent to involuntarily terminate those employees who are still unvaccinated will be delivered by Dec. 20, and the final notices will be delivered by Dec. 31, under the plan proposed by Lesher.

There are also 13 unclassified and 40 probationary county employees who work with vulnerable populations and are unvaccinated. They will be fired more swiftly and on unspecified dates because they don’t have the benefit of a “pre-action” process as do classified employees, who are protected by a merit system.

The 57 employees with medical or religious accommodations can also request a reappointment to work away from vulnerable populations though this is optional. The measure is offered as “an act of good faith by the county,” according to the November memo by Lesher.

Dr. Francisco Garcia, the county's chief medical officer, also gave an update to the board Tuesday, saying that 33 to 36 percent of all beds in Pima County hospitals are filled by unvaccinated COVID patients. Just 8 ICU beds were available in area hospitals, he said. The percentage of hospitalized patients who have COVID infections has increased locally from about 20-25 percent in September and October as the latest spike in cases has continued.

About 26 percent of COVID infections here are breakthrough cases, Garcia said, as he strongly recommended boosters, saying “being fully immunized does not give you superpowers.” However, he also said that vaccinated populations are “significantly underrepresented” as COVID hospitalizations and deaths compared to the unvaccinated.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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