Sheriff Bill Brown promotes nine deputies in 2017, including Neil Gowing (far left), current president of the Deputy Sheriff's Association. | Credit: Courtesy

Negotiations continue between the County of Santa Barbara and the Deputy Sheriff’s Association (DSA), the employee union representing dozens of patrol deputies who have so far failed to comply with the county’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-test policy. The Board of Supervisors adopted the mandate September 1, and it went into effect October 18.

As of Monday, 161 deputies had opted to receive weekly tests in lieu of getting their shots, but only 37 have registered to be tested, and none have actually been swabbed.

Sgt. Neil Gowing, president of the Deputy Sheriff’s Association (DSA), the employee union leading the negotiations, said the group still feels uncertain about the true “impacts and effects” of COVID-19 testing, including “how the tests are going to be implemented, which testing platform is going to be used, who is going to administer the tests, [and] what are the steps if there is a positive test.”

Gowing took issue with the characterization that the deputies are simply rejecting their weekly check-ups. “I can assure you, though, that none of our unvaccinated employees are refusing to test,” he said. While the order went into effect last month, he explained, “There are a lot of details that have to be worked out before implementation.”

Gowing hopes to have all of the union’s lingering questions answered “soon,” he said, describing the back-and-forth with officials as “vigorous.” “At the end of the day,” he said, “we want to do our part to help keep everyone safe, just as we do every day in our working capacity.” 

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Supervisor Gregg Hart voiced frustration that talks with the DSA have dragged on for weeks with no end in sight. He noted all other county employee unions ― including those for firefighters, public works staff, social service departments, and others ― got on board with the mandate almost immediately after it was implemented last month. “I expect all county employees to have public health consequences at the forefront of their minds,” Hart said. Among the county’s entire 4,564-member workforce, 81.5 percent have been vaccine-verified.

Joseph M. Pisano, an employee relations manager with the county’s Human Resources Department, said noncompliance with the order isn’t in of itself illegal, as the mandate came in the form of a “policy” and didn’t actually amend the Santa Barbara County Code of Ordinances. Nevertheless, he explained, “The County has the ability to address noncompliance with the policy by working within the applicable Civil Service Rules that govern implementation of potential corrective disciplinary action.” Those actions may include suspension, demotion, or termination, the rules state. 

At the County Jail, where multiple COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred over the course of the pandemic, only 49 percent of custody deputies are vaccinated, data shows. Gowing said, however, that all unvaccinated custody deputies ― who are represented by a different union than the DSA ― have submitted to the required testing. Across the entire Sheriff’s Office, 62.4 percent of employees have received their shots.

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