Sheriff Nanos: Move to fire Pima jail guards who refuse COVID vaccine not a 'bluff'
'I implore you to to the right thing... Get vaccinated,' Pima County sheriff tells corrections staffers
With more than 200 staffers at the Pima County Jail about to lose their jobs because they have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, Sheriff Chris Nanos cautioned them Monday, releasing a statement that the move is not a "bluff" and "with every decision come consequences."
About 216 workers in the Pima County Sheriff's Department, including 206 employees at the Adult Detention Center, are among the 386 county workers who have refused to comply with a mandate that they become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the end of the year.
At a meeting last week, the Board of Supervisors again approved a plan to terminate county government employees who work with "vulnerable populations" if they don't get their shots.
"The consequences have been laid out. The line in the sand has been drawn and the clock is ticking. I implore you to do the right thing," Nanos wrote in a memo to PCSD staff released Monday afternoon. "Do what is right for your families, your loved ones and the preservation of your lifestyle. More importantly, do what is right for yourself and get vaccinated."
Termination notices were being delivered to those staffers — mostly corrections officers at the jail — over last week and into this week, with employees still able to get their shots and comply with the vaccination mandate before they are fired.
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.
The process of informing unvaccinated county staffers who refuse to get their shots has begun as the pandemic is again resurgent in Arizona. More than 23,500 new infections have been reported in the state in the past week, with more than 450 additional deaths from the virus. The requirement for county workers to be vaccinated does not cover PCSD deputies, who were not deemed to work with vulnerable populations. Since the pandemic began, COVID-19 has become the nation's leading cause of death for law enforcement officers.
Nanos told his staffers that it "saddens me" that some people are "misleading" them by persuading them to not be vaccinated.
"Many of these same individuals have already become vaccinated and more will," Nanos wrote. "They then leave you to the consequence of a poor decision. In a cruel twist, they will retain their jobs at your expense. The die is cast and if you choose not to be vaccinated – or if you cannot get an accommodation, your employment will be terminated. This employer does not bluff by serving each of you with a formal notice of intent to terminate. Please take heed."
The Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 last 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 has regularly opposed COVID measures backed by the rest of the supervisors.
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 county has reported that 84 percent of their 6,279 active employees were fully vaccinated as of last 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.
During last week's meeting, 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 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.
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.
In his letter Monday, the sheriff wrote that "You are being told that I will release hundreds of inmates to wreak havoc on the citizens of Pima County. It’s a legal fact; I cannot...nor would I...nor could the BOS release inmates from the PCADC. Only the courts have that authority."
"Although it may be true that if dozens of you leave, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department will make operational changes," wrote the elected Democrat. "Contingency plans have been established and these plans are sustainable to ensure the jail population and all its employees will remain safe. Many of your trusted advocates with their politicized agenda will abandon you in the end, but this jail will remain operationally solvent and safe."
451 deaths, 23k new cases in Arizona over past week
There were 2,391 new confirmed COVID-19 infections reported in Arizona on Monday, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services.
346 new cases,were in Pima County.
On Friday, there were 93 additional deaths from COVID-19 reported in Arizona, with 3,924 new confirmed infections, according to data from the Arizona Department of Health Services. Sunday, there were 19 additional deaths and 3,231 new cases. Saturday, there were 74 more new deaths and 3,774 additional reported cases.
Last week, there were 75 deaths and 3,663 new cases Thursday, and 18 deaths and 3,503 new infections on Wednesday. On Tuesday, there were 172 new reported deaths and 3,015 new cases, with 3,022 new cases last Monday.
Nearly 3,000 Pima County residents have died from the disease, with more than 23,000 Arizonans dead from COVID since the beginning of the pandemic.
Unvaccinated people in Arizona have been more than 15 times more likely to die than fully vaccinated people who got COVID-19, ADHS officials said, based on data from October.
Arizona hospitals continue to be overwhelmed, in large part because of patients with COVID-19 who are not vaccinated. In Pima County this week, there were only six intensive care beds available for new patients in all area hospitals.
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 among those who are covered by the mandate. That tally decreased to 386 by Monday, in the most recent numbers available.
The first notices of intent to involuntarily terminate covered 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.
TucsonSentinel.com’s Bennito L. Kelty contributed to this report.