The LAPD’s 77th Division in South Central serves what some officers consider “pretty much the most violent area of the entire city and county of Los Angeles,” explained Officer Charles Simmering in a phone interview. “You’re just running and gunning all night. You’re just running. There’s never a dull moment. You’re just going from one call to the next to the next. ‘Organized chaos’ is the best way we describe it.”
Each night, he explained, the 77th Division puts out a minimum of 12 cars, usually two officers per car, all 24 officers feeling “beyond overwhelmed.” The 77th Division can’t afford to lose people, Simmering said. But, he continued, that’s exactly what’s happening.
“Last year at my division alone I think we lost roughly 40 officers – and that’s putting a hurt, putting a strain on everybody,” said Simmering.
“People are leaving,” he stated. “They’re tired. They’re fed up.” Their reasons vary according to Simmering’s account. Lack of support. Lack of trust on the part of the city. Frustrations over not being allowed to make their own decisions out on the job. Nonetheless, the departure of these officers only exacerbates some of the problems that drove them to leave.
“If you need a particular day off for something family-related, your mother’s birthday or kid’s birthday, or something important,” Simmering explained, “They deny you and say, ‘No, you can’t have the day off. Sorry. We’re undermanned. We need people here.’”
That is, they need people, assuming they are vaccinated for Covid-19 because to the city bureaucracy Covid-19 remains the greatest threat to the citizens of South Central, as well as the rest of Los Angeles. Hence, officers such as Simmering, who remain unvaccinated for Covid-19, are considered dispensable.
The Parallel Reality of LA’s City Workers
Announced in July of 2021 and later passed and approved that August at the height of the Pandemic Era’s mandate madness, Los Angeles’ vaccine mandate for city employees still remains in effect. Predicated on the continued threat of Covid-19 to public health, the effectiveness of Covid vaccines, and the danger posed by the unvaccinated, the mandate comes off as a relic from a bygone era, as do the protracted Byzantine processes to which employees seeking exemptions must submit and the testing protocols such employees must agree to follow.
According to the anti-mandate organization Roll Call 4 Freedom, the ordinance and the system it established are illegal. According to the unvaccinated employees living under the ordinance, the system often seems random and arbitrary. Yet, in October of 2022, when there appears to be little doubt that Covid vaccines do little to stop the spread of Covid and that the vaccinated can spread the disease as easily as the unvaccinated, vaccine mandates are alive and well in the city of LA.
By the account of James Greenfield, a manager in the sanitation department, “It’s like we’re living in a parallel universe…[we’re] just in a parallel reality.”
Looking back on the past year, Greenfield, who is unvaccinated for Covid due to religious reasons, described life under the ordinance in a phone interview, saying requirements for compliance are always changing, “the goal post is always moving.”
“It was originally, you know, submit an exemption…” he stated. “It later developed into like this four-page, unconstitutional questionnaire on your religious beliefs.”
The city also wanted employees to “have a pastor answer questions.” Greenfield added. “I mean it [was] just over the top on violating your, you know, your religious freedom.”
Greenfield said he filed for a religious exemption, but refused to fill out the four-page form.
As a condition of remaining employed while working through the exemption process, Greenfield said, he and other unvaccinated city employees were initially required to test twice per week, but that was later reduced to once per week. The city, he said, also threatened to deduct the cost of the tests from people’s paychecks. However, before the city could charge anyone’s paycheck, they first needed them to fill out paperwork giving them permission to charge their paychecks.
“I didn’t fill out the paperwork,” Greenfield said. “I’m not going to give [the city] permission to take money out of my paycheck.”
But, he noted, he believes “a lot of people were coerced” and the city managed to bill at least a couple of people before they had to stop.
More recently, said Greenfield, they tried to bill the tests to the insurance of unvaccinated employees but backed off from those attempts within a couple of weeks.
Yvette Smith, an animal control officer at the City of Los Angeles’ Harbor Animal Shelter in the San Pedro neighborhood, stated, “We just didn’t give our insurance information and then [the city] pulled away.”
Like Greenfield, Smith has been required to test for Covid for nearly a year as she works her way through the exemption process. During the past year, Smith said, she had submitted a request for a religious exemption, was informed that it was denied, and appealed the decision. Now, in October of 2022, she awaits a decision regarding her appeal.
In some ways, although frustrated and inconvenienced, she believes people in her department (or at least her corner of her department), have gotten lucky. “As long as you have submitted a religious exemption that [the city has] denied and it’s in some imaginary nebulous area and you agree to test, they’re pretty much leaving us alone. So I’m grateful for that.”
However, Smith noted, “Every department is treating [the ordinance] differently.”
The Autumn Purge
Currently, the Los Angeles Department of Transportation appears to be one of the departments in which a purge of the unvaccinated is in full swing.
Navy veteran and former wildland firefighter, Rene Ochoa, has been a traffic officer with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation for the past 19 years. “I’ve been grateful for my job,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s helped me to have a lifestyle [I wanted], permitted me to have my home and provide for my wife and my children.”
Last year, he said, he filed a request for a religious exemption due to concerns about potential side effects and the use of aborted fetal cell lines in the development of the Covid vaccines. After his request was denied in May 2022, Ochoa said he appealed the denial. That appeal, he explained, was denied in July.
“Then, September 13 of this year…” he said, “I was walked off the job, locked out of my station in front of all my fellow coworkers…”
“I am currently on administrative leave,” stated Ochoa. “I have a Skelly hearing scheduled for Friday November 4 at 10:00 am.”
Amongst city employees working their way through the process of attaining a religious exemption from the Covid vaccine mandate, Skelly hearings are generally seen as the final step prior to termination.
Reflecting on the strong likelihood that he will lose his job on November 4, Ochoa said, “I’m in a much better position than a lot of other people I know that are younger than me and with maybe say half the time [in a city job].”
Because of his time working other positions with the city and with LA County, Ochoa is eligible for retirement, although with an early retirement penalty if he takes it before he turns 55; Ochoa is currently 53.
Smith expressed similar sentiments, commenting on the possibility she might be terminated. “I’m in a different position than most people. I’m pretty close to retirement [in June 2023] and kind of don’t give a shit at this point. So, you know, I’ll just keep jumping through the hoops until it bothers me too much and then I just won’t do it any more.”
If the City of Los Angeles does try to proceed with her termination, Smith is optimistic that she can work within the system to delay its finalization through a strategic use of vacation time, family leave, and possibly agreeing to unpaid leave until she can retire at least sort of on her terms. She admitted she is morally conflicted about having to resort to these kinds of tactics, but will do what she needs to do.
Yet, most Los Angeles city employees do not find themselves in positions where they can retire early or maneuver their way through the system until they can run out the clock and retire on terms they find acceptable.
Pearl Pantoja, for example, an employee with the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, who was interviewed previously for an article published by Brownstone Institute about the troubles faced by LA city workers, has five children, one of whom has special needs. She also serves as the caregiver for her disabled mother. She and her family depend on her paycheck and the benefits that come with her job.
However, she said, “Friday, September 16, I was in effect placed on, my supervisor used the word suspension. I know the city’s calling it administrative leave without pay.”
“They gave me a notice with an appointment…” she stated. “It says you’re being placed off for non-compliance.”
But, Pantoja holds, “I was compliant, except they refused to accept my religious exemption.”
“They also did not…attempt to see if there were any reasonable accommodations that could be made so that I could continue to work.” Pantoja claims these are “parts of the process [that were] just simply ignored.”
Currently, Pantoja, like her colleague, Ochoa, awaits her Skelly hearing. Based on what she has seen happen to other unvaccinated colleagues, she is not optimistic about the future. “I have a colleague who lost his job and he is now homeless…I have another colleague who is expecting his first child and he’s now out of work and [has] no healthcare.”
“I’m really worried,” she said. “I almost know with certainty that I’m going to lose my job.”
What Lies Behind the Curtain
Perhaps the City of Los Angeles’ mandate, exemption process, and the personal and professional devastation they wrought can best be described as a form of organized chaos.
Part of what makes this all so frustrating and demoralizing, according to Greenfield, is the way the whole system is set up. No one is really accountable for any of the decisions made regarding exemptions, testing, appeals, or terminations. Everything is done through third parties and anonymous emails.
“You’ll get an email…with no name,” he explained. “Nobody attached to it. Nobody personally to talk to about it.”
“It’s like they’re just hiding,” he said. “They’re hiding behind a shroud. You know, supposedly there’s this committee that’s reviewing and coming up with these policies except who would know who’s on this committee. Who the names are? When they meet? It’s just a blind process like the wizard behind the curtain. The Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. You know, and that’s the process.”
Moreover, Greenfield noted, he and other unvaccinated city employees live with this feeling that “the hammer can drop anytime.”
“So, you’re just living under this uncertainty,” he said. “When’s the carpet going to get pulled out from beneath you?”
Simmering, who is currently on medical leave due to an injury sustained on the job, said the decision regarding his exemption has been placed on hold until he can return to work, at which point he said he’ll have to “play the Russian roulette with whether not they’re going to approve [his] exemption.”
“It’s like so much of the country is going in a different direction and maybe backtracking,” Greenfield said. “You know, maybe they thought [mandates were] a good decision. But [in LA], there’s no backtracking. It’s like they’re doubling down. [They’re] sticking to [their] guns here even though nobody else is.”