Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks in November about vaccine mandates.
CNN  — 

The authority to impose penalties for noncompliance with Los Angeles County’s vaccine mandate for public workers soon could shift way from department heads who may not be carrying it out – namely the powerful and outspoken sheriff who says 4,000 of his employees could face being fired because of stiffer enforcement.

The measure further inflames tensions between law enforcement and administrators of the most populous US county and comes as vaccine policies and masking rules continue to stoke passions more than two years into the pandemic.

The LA County proposal – supported Tuesday by its Board of Supervisors for review March 15 – would empower the county’s personnel director to override department heads and discipline employees who don’t comply with the vaccine mandate in place since October 1.

Just a week after that deadline, Sheriff Alex Villanueva announced he only would seek voluntary compliance with the policy that requires all workers to be vaccinated and submit proof of it or to get a medical or religious exemption. Under the rules, “any employee who does not comply with the COVID-19 Vaccination Policy may be subject to corrective action, up to and including discharge.”

After Tuesday’s vote, the sheriff’s department called the board’s effort to shift who can enforce the vaccine mandate a push “to form a suicide pact and start the process to fire 4,000 deputies for not being vaccinated.”

“This is nothing more than another politically motivated stunt by the board, which has no bearing on public health, but will definitely harm public safety,” said Villanueva, who faces reelection this year and also has been tussling publicly of late with the LA County district attorney.

More than four months after the county’s vaccine mandate was enacted, less than 60% of sheriff’s department employees are fully vaccinated, said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who introduced Tuesday’s motion.

“The sheriff isn’t even entering data for his employees,” she said at the meeting. “The sheriff’s department has consistently ended up in the basement of the percentage of those people who are vaccinated.”

“Unsurprisingly, approximately 74% of the more than 5,000 Covid-19-related workers’ compensation claims filed by county employees as of January 29, 2022, have been filed by employees in the sheriff’s department,” she said.

Most of those infections happened before vaccines were available, Villanueva countered in his statement.

Of LA County’s roughly 100,000 employees, only 83% are fully vaccinated, Kuehl said. About 74% of adults in the US are fully vaccinated, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. About 10,000 county employees are noncompliant with the vaccine mandate, while some 5,000 have applied for exemptions, Kuehl said.