A legal fight in Los Angeles has exposed a bitter and widening divide between public servants like teachers, police officers and firefighters as COVID-19 vaccine mandates become increasingly common — and first responders push back.
Earlier this month, more than 500 Los Angeles firefighters filed a lawsuit against the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The suit is one of several challenges among police and EMS personnel across California and in other major cities, some of whom have threatened resignations in response to the new rules.
Jeff Burmeister, who’s part of the nonprofit group Firefighters4Freedom Foundation, said he and his colleagues on the frontlines should be able to “make the personal choice based off their constitutional right to privacy,'' whether or not they want the vaccine.
“Our lawsuit is directly aimed at trying to repeal the mandate that all city workers, including firefighters receive the vaccine or be terminated,” Burmeister, who’s served as a firefighter paramedic for the Los Angeles City Fire Department for 16 years, told Yahoo Finance in an interview.
The city of Los Angeles approved an ordinance last month requiring city employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID by early October, unless they are approved for a specific religious or medical exemption.
Similar pressures are bubbling up in New York City, where medical professionals, teachers and police have sparred with City Hall over COVID-19 vaccination requirements. According to recent data, only 53% of NYPD workers are vaccinated.
But Kevin McBride, the L.A. firefighters’ attorney, argues that the local government doesn’t have the “power to intrude upon constitutional rights. The city can mandate when garbage is picked up, things that are administrative that don't impact people's individual constitutional rights,” he told Yahoo Finance.
LA first responders seek a 'middle ground' to vaccine mandates
As of this week, 66% of the 3350 sworn Los Angeles Fire Department members have received at least one shot, according to the department’s records.
Of the LAFD’s 3,712 employees, 1,079 have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic began, 9 of them within the last two weeks.
McBride notes that his clients are seeking a “middle ground” with the city that could include submitting a COVID test regularly.
“Our position in the legal case is reasonable accommodations that probably include some sort of testing and we're open to negotiating what that looks like” he said. However, he insisted that “none of my clients will ever walk off the job.”
McBride added: “These firefighters got into this business to protect the public. They're going to keep protecting the public as long as the city lets them.”
Meanwhile, six LAPD employees have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the city’s vaccination requirement, claiming the mandate violates the employees’ constitutional rights to privacy and due process. The complaint also says that officials have threatened to lay off thousands of officers who refuse to get the jab.
“We want them to be able to have a meaningful opportunity to request a religious accommodation,” Kevin Snider, chief counsel at the Pacific Justice Institute, said in an interview. “We want those that have contracted and recovered from coronavirus to be exempt from vaccination.”
This lawsuit comes amid increasingly fraught debates over employer vaccination mandates across the country. The issue escalated after President Joe Biden announced a mandate for federal government workers, and requirements that private employers with more than 100 employees to be vaccinated against the virus, or be tested weekly.
However, the LAPD suit, which was brought against the city, the police chief, and several other government officials, claims that weekly testing itself is “highly intrusive.”
Snider noted that his clients don’t want “nasal testing” but they may be open to other non-intrusive methods.
Vaccine mandates prompt 'some soul searching'
It reflects a broader hesitancy among LAPD employees to get vaccinated against coronavirus, despite strong evidence that vaccines are safe and effective.
According to an internal memo sent to Mayor Eric Garcetti obtained by Yahoo Finance, more than 2,600 Los Angeles Police Department employees intend to seek religious exemptions, and over 360 plan to seek medical exemptions for the mandate requiring all city employees to get vaccinated.
The exemptions suggest a loophole in the system. Yet according to Snider, “when you have a situation in one's life that is a bit of a crisis then one begins to do some soul searching and some deep thinking. And I think that is what is happening.”
In L.A., non-exempt employees must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 19, and exemptions will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Those who have exemptions must be tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis.
Recent data also shows just about half of the department’s employees have not been vaccinated, which lags behind the general population, who have had at least one dose. Several sworn LAPD employees and three spouses of department personnel have died from complications of COVID since the pandemic began.
An LAPD representative did not immediately return Yahoo Finance’s request for comment. However, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, expressed his belief that the city’s position would prevail.
“I'm confident about the outcome,” Feuer told Yahoo Finance Live this week. “I think it's essential that we continue to effectively persuade all members of the public, including our first responders, how important it is to get vaccinated to protect all of us.”
Yet it’s unclear what will happen if employees refuse to get the jab, regardless of how the lawsuit fares.
“We're going to see what happens. I will say I think it's just imperative that we rise to this occasion right now,” Feuer added.
He declined to speculate if officers or firefighters would leave over the mandates, claiming it's “premature.” However, Feuer said he was “optimistic that we're going to see the vast majority of our firefighters and police officers agree to comply with a law that is extremely likely to be upheld by courts in these losses.”
Some first responders have argued that they have survived previous bouts of coronavirus, and as a result have natural antibodies from contracting the virus previously. Still, many medical experts advise vaccination even for those who have been infected.
“There's no medical reason why people who have had prior infection should not be considered protected and allowed to have an exemption from workplace vaccination requirements,” said Jeffrey Klausner, clinical professor of population and public health sciences at University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
He added: “There's no strong evidence that people who get a shot after they've recovered actually have better immunity in terms of a lower risk of going to the hospital, going to an intensive care unit or dying.”
Dani Romero is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter: @daniromerotv