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L.A. County court to staff: Get vaccinated or get fired

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Sergio Tapia during a hearing in December 2020.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County Superior Court, the nation’s largest trial court system, told employees Thursday they must show proof of being fully vaccinated soon after a COVID-19 vaccine receives final government approval or face termination.

In a letter to the court’s roughly 5,000 staffers, the top executive, Sherri Carter, said staffers will be required to provide proof of vaccination no more than 45 days after the federal Food and Drug Administration gives its final approval to one of the vaccines available in the U.S. Those with medical conditions or religious beliefs that prohibit vaccination will be eligible for exclusion from the mandate, but otherwise inoculation will be considered “a condition of employment,” she said.

“Ultimately, unvaccinated employees without an approved exclusion will be subject to termination,” Carter said. “Given the surge in cases fueled by the highly transmissible Delta variant — and recognizing that unvaccinated employees are at greater risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 within the workplace, including to the public that depends on Court services — the Court must take every measure available to protect against the virus.”

Hilda Solis, chair of the County Board of Supervisors, issued an executive order requiring county employees to provide proof of vaccination by Oct. 1.

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To expedite their release amid the pandemic, the FDA authorized a handful of COVID-19 vaccines for emergency use, which is a step short of full approval. The New York Times reported this week that the regulatory agency is aiming to give its final sign-off to Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine by early September.

The court’s sweeping order goes beyond those announced elsewhere, including the city of Los Angeles and the state of California. Several jurisdictions have recently begun to require employees choose between getting vaccinated or submitting to regular testing. Court employees were offered no testing option and explicitly threatened with losing their jobs if they do not comply.

L.A. County announced this week it will require all employees to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 1, but it did not specify penalties for noncompliance.

The court’s mandate does not affect judges, who as elected officers are not subject to employee policies and procedures, the court said in a statement. Judges will still be able to submit proof of vaccination as part of the new policy.

Presiding Judge Eric C. Taylor said the move reflected the court’s desire to protect the public and professionals working in the legal system.

“Vaccination is the chief tool we have as a society to keep everyone safe and end this pandemic,” Taylor said in a statement.

Masks will also continue to be required in court facilities; the court has kept a mandatory mask policy in place since June 2020.

Michael Ferreira, president of the union representing courtroom interpreters in California, said he had significant concerns about the hard line announced by Carter.

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“Our aim is, no one is going to get fired over this,” Ferreira said. “I don’t think if you are unvaccinated, you should be fired. No other government agency is doing this.”

He wondered why the 45-day window starts with the full approval of one COVID-19 vaccine, when several are currently available.

“What if you have a different vaccine than the one that was approved?” Ferreira asked.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court system is still holding in-person hearings despite the recent deaths of three court employees from COVID-19.

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The move by L.A. County Superior Court comes as California grapples with another surge in coronavirus cases, driven in part by the Delta variant. Data show, however, that although L.A. County has seen an uptick in “breakthrough” cases among the vaccinated, people who have received vaccinations enjoy strong protections and are far less likely to be hospitalized with serious illness.

L.A. County Superior Court has struggled to prevent coronavirus cases among the ranks of employees, attorneys and their clients, police and others who pass through its more than three dozen courthouses. At least four people who worked in L.A. County courthouses have died after falling ill with COVID-19, and the court system has recently reported positive cases among its staff and judges.

Times staff writers James Queally and Richard Winton contributed to this report.


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