A judge denied a request by the Los Angeles city firefighters' union for a preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of a mandate requiring its employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 pending resolution of a labor issue, saying the balancing of harms favored protecting the public's health.
“The court finds (United Firefighters of Los Angeles City Local 112) has not made the significant showing of irreparable harm necessary to enjoin a public entity in the performance of its duties,'' Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel wrote in finalizing her ruling Friday.
The judge said that even if all of the 789 unvaccinated LAFD employees leave as a result of the vaccine mandate, the department has developed contingency staffing and firehouse plans to ensure the safety of the public.
She also noted that all current probationary firefighters have complied with the vaccine mandate.
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“Evidence also supports that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on the city's firefighters and even resulted in the death of two of its members,'' the judge wrote. "City firefighters work in unique circumstances, living together for 24 hour periods, and are required to interact with -- and even treat -- the most vulnerable segments of the city.''
Strobel issued a tentative ruling Thursday that generally reflected her thinking in her final decision. She heard arguments Thursday afternoon and took the matter under submission.
City Attorney Mike Feuer called the ruling "a victory for public health and safety in Los Angeles. The court recognized the emergency we're in and the harm that enjoining implementation of the vaccine mandate could have caused. Beyond this case, the presence of the new, highly contagious variant here in L.A. underscores the importance of vaccinating our first responders -- indeed, of vaccinating everyone."
On Nov. 12, in Strobel's absence, Judge Mitchell Beckloff denied the union's request for a temporary restraining order. The union filed the petition on Nov. 8.
The city adopted an ordinance in August, directing city employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus unless they can demonstrate a medical or religious exemption. The City Council subsequently approved a plan that gave employees more time to get vaccinated.
The union has a pending unfair practices charge before the Los Angeles City Employee Relations Board and wants a preliminary injunction issued until that matter is resolved. The union's ERB complaint alleges the city has bargained in bad faith concerning the mandate
“The city violated its clear legal obligations under California's public employment relations laws by failing and refusing to bargain in good faith with UFLAC over the effects of its decision to implement a COVID-19 vaccine mandate,'' the union's court papers stated.
Attorney Dana Martinez, on behalf of the union, told the judge Friday that the union is not challenging the constitutionality of the ordinance, but rather the city's alleged decision to not abide by proper bargaining procedures. She said the city's claim that an emergency existed is undermined on several fronts, including the extension of the vaccination deadline that put unvaccinated firefighters back into the community.
Martinez said that about 400 firefighters could be put on unpaid leave later this month. She further said additional harm has been done to the union by antagonism created between the leadership and some members who question why the city can't be thwarted and wonder what their union dues are being used for.
Assistant City Attorney Vivienne Swanigan said those firefighters who have not filed for exemptions by Dec. 18 may be fired and will be put on unpaid leave. However, she said job losses will not be automatic because all are entitled to due process hearings.
Deputy City Attorney Jennifer Gregg added that the firefighters would even have due process rights before they are placed on unpaid leave.
In her ruling, the judge said that of the unvaccinated firefighters who have not yet pursued or obtained an exemption, some may ask for an exemption or voluntarily comply with the vaccine mandate.
“Thus, (the union) substantially overstates the number of LAFD employees that would be at immediate risk of termination as a result of the ordinance...,'' Strobel wrote.