For nearly a year, the lives of LA city employees who have chosen not to be vaccinated for COVID-19 have been turned upside down as they live each day with uncertainty and find themselves navigating a Kafkaesque labyrinth of local government bureaucracy.
The reason for this is Ordinance No. 187134. Passed and approved by the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor Eric Garcetti in the summer of 2021, the ordinance henceforth required all current and future city employees of Los Angeles to be vaccinated for COVID-19 barring approval for a medical or religious exemption.
However, city employees who sought religious exemptions through the proper procedures sometimes still found themselves lost in the purgatory of an opaque process, seemingly rigged against them by faceless bureaucrats.
Pearl Pantoja, for example, has worked in the City of Los Angeles Department of Transportation for 17 years. She also considers herself a person of faith. For religious reasons, she chose not to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Thus, she submitted a request for a religious exemption and abided by other requirements, such as regular testing, while she awaited a response to her request.
In a phone interview, Pantoja said she received that response in March of 2022. Her request had been denied and this is when she began to realize the nightmare into which she was awaking.
“The response for the denial was a canned response…” Pantoja explained. “It’s the same which every single denial has received. So there were no specifics. There were no details. [It] was very much very generic. ‘You don’t meet the criteria.’ And that was that.”
Hence, Pantoja said she requested additional information regarding the criteria she failed to meet, thinking perhaps that by better understanding the criteria she would better be able to complete the appeal she would soon submit. But, Pantoja stated, her request for this additional information went unanswered and soon she found her appeal was denied too.
Once more, there was no reasoning provided, Pantjoa claimed. “It was just simply, ‘Oh, your appeal was denied.’ And that’s it. No one called me. No one talked to me. No one tried to explain anything.”
Since then, Pantoja said she went on to submit additional requests and resubmit her documentation for the exemption she believes is rightfully hers along with additional notes regarding how she was unclear about what the arbiters of her fate were actually asking for and how she felt they hadn’t taken the time to read her previous request and appeal based on the “canned” responses of the denials.
Yet, in the end, Pantoja said, “I basically received a response saying that I had completed the process. That the city had done everything in their power as far as process goes. And, basically, I have 42 days in which to become compliant with vaccination or I will be sent home.”
“At this point,” Pantoja added, “I am so heartbroken, distraught, in shock over this whole thing. I just don’t understand it and the parts I do understand are so frustrating because it seems because I am a religious person, I’m being held to a different standard and not being treated equally like anyone else, any other employee.”
According to Angelica Anselm, one of the four co-founders of Roll Call 4 Freedom, an anti-mandate coalition fighting against the ordinance, experiences such as that of Pantoja are all too common.
“Most of those [who have submitted a request for a religious exemption] have been denied,” Anselm stated in a phone interview. “And then some of their appeals…have also been denied,” she added.
“Everyone else,” Anselm said, “is kind of in this limbo state where they’ve submitted it [a request for an exemption], but they haven’t been approved [or denied] yet.”
Following the denial of a request or subsequent appeal, Anselm explained, the next action the city takes against non-compliant employees is to give them a period in which to become compliant by becoming fully vaccinated for COVID-19. After that period, if they are still unvaccinated and are a civilian employee, they are put on unpaid leave, lose their benefits, and are eventually sent to a Skelly meeting; if they are law enforcement, they are given 30 days paid leave and eventually sent to a board of rights.
Both the Skelly meeting and board of rights serve as something akin to a trial at which city employees can advocate for themselves and explain why they disobeyed the ordinance.
After Pantoja is sent home when her 42 days to become compliant with the ordinance run out, she will eventually have the opportunity to defend herself at a Skelly meeting.
Mike McMahon, a 14-year veteran of the LAPD and one of Roll Call 4 Freedom’s other co-founders, is currently defending himself through his board of rights.
Unlike Pantoja though, McMahon never submitted a request for an exemption.
When the ordinance was passed in August, 2021, McMahon said, he found himself distraught by “the unconstitutionality of these mandates, of forcing us to participate in these things in order for us to maintain our status within society.”
“I could have very easily submitted a religious exemption,” he stated, “[But] I felt so strongly, that this isn’t just about religion. This is about our freedom as individuals. You know, it goes back to natural law, John Locke, and being able to decide what goes into my body is my choice. So I refused to submit a religious exemption based on my strong beliefs that [the ordinance] is unconstitutional. And I also refused to test.”
Subsequently, McMahon said, he was brought up on administrative charges for refusing to comply with the city’s mandate. His board of rights was then set for December 6 – 8. The first two dates for his board of rights took place as planned. The third, McMahon said, was moved several weeks out. Then others were added as time went on. It has been a lengthy and taxing ordeal for McMahon. His next date for his board of rights is July 1. He is unclear how long this will continue.
Reflecting on the process, McMahon explained, “It’s hard to state what it’s like because, to me, it’s not fair. You’re going through the procedural matters of labor code violations…but then you have what was the mindset of Mike McMahon going into the meeting that he was brought into on November 3 where I ended up refusing to acquiesce to those mandates.”
Describing himself as an independent thinker who worked to educate himself about COVID from the start of the pandemic by reading articles from both medical journals and COVID contrarians, McMahon said, “I’ve testified a grand total of about five and a half, six hours about my own mindset and what I know about COVID-19 and the PCR test and the issues that I have with the vaccines and all that.”
McMahon said he believes the COVID vaccines to be ineffective and linked to numerous adverse events. He also does not believe regular testing to be appropriate in this context.
A steady stream of scientific publications give credence to McMahon’s contentions about the purported safety and effectiveness of the vaccines, as well as call the utility of regular COVID testing into question.
However, even if he is vindicated by science, McMahon finds it frustrating that “In cases like my board, they don’t want to hear the science behind it…They just want to say, ‘You’ve disobeyed the order of a chief so you’re guilty.’”
Whether McMahon will be successful though remains to be seen.
To the best of her knowledge, Anselm said, as of mid-June, only one person non-compliant with the city employee vaccine ordinance had been successful advocating for themselves through a Skelly meeting or a board of rights.
McMahon though remains optimistic for his case and hopeful that it will have some kind of impact.
“You know, I’m looking to set precedent whether it’s good or bad,” he said. “You know, if it’s good, if one wins, we all win and that’s citywide. You know, if I lose, that just means that there’s a blueprint for people to come back to and say, ‘Well this worked, but this didn’t and let’s go from there.’”
The number of individuals citywide such a win would impact remains something of an unknown.
Back in September 2021, the Los Angeles Daily News reported on a memo from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office sent to elected officials that indicated 6,000 of L.A’s nearly 60,000 city employees planned to seek an exemption while an additional 24,000 failed to meet an early deadline to report their vaccination status.
In November 2021, there were reports of 777 LA city employees either on unpaid leave or vulnerable to being placed on unpaid leave due to non-compliance with the mandate, although this number gives no indication of how many city employees were still in the process of working to attain an exemption or which type of exemption they were pursuing.
Anselm estimates the current number of employees still working their way through the exemption process or defending themselves through Skelly meetings or boards of rights to be close to 17,000 based on information gathered by her organization and communications with similar groups in California.
When citing this number though, Anselm, who is also the wife of a member of the LAPD, emphasized, “I think the most important component to this is that it’s not just 17,000 employees that are facing potential termination. It’s 17,000 families that are going to be without a paycheck and without insurance.”