Polk County administrator scolds sheriff — and threatens his budget — over failing to test employees for COVID

Lee Rood
Des Moines Register

Polk County Administrator John Norris acknowledges erupting this week at Sheriff Kevin Schneider over the sheriff’s refusal to begin testing unvaccinated employees in his office for COVID-19.

The county's top public safety official has resisted, Norris said, even though other county department heads have been doing so for more than a month, as required under a policy the county supervisors approved Sept. 14.

Norris said he confronted Schneider over the issue after a supervisors' meeting Tuesday. He said he told the sheriff it could become a budget issue if he isn't willing to enforce a public safety policy aimed at protecting county employees, jail inmates and the public at large.

"I reminded him that budget submissions are right around the corner, and he should probably think about how this might factor in in reviewing his budget," Norris said.

John Norris, Polk County administrator.

In a statement, the sheriff's public information officer, Lt. Ryan Evans, said: “Sheriff Schneider’s focus is on improving the workplace for his dedicated staff and providing the highest-quality public safety to the citizens he serves. As a matter of policy the Sheriff’s Office does not comment on personnel matters and we have no further comment at this time.”

The supervisors' policy requires all county employees to either get vaccinated or show a negative COVID-19 test every week in order to work. Testing was to begin among all departments on Sept. 30.

Employees working in the sheriff's office and county jail have been more resistant than other employees to getting vaccinated, however. Only about 37% of sheriff's patrol officers and 46% of the sheriff's overall staff have done so, Norris said.

Altogether, about 70% of the county's more than 1,500 employees have been vaccinated.

More:Iowa surpasses 7,000 COVID-19 deaths as new reported cases increase in weekly update

Across the country, law enforcement officers have been slow to get vaccinated, news organizations have reported. The New York Times in October found that more police officers in 2020 and 2021 had died from COVID-19 infections tied to their work than any other work-related cause. Nationwide, some 460 officers have succumbed to the virus, but many police unions have fought vaccine mandates.

A new law signed Friday by Gov. Kim Reynolds clouds the discussion of what the county can legally do to try to make the sheriff comply.

Under the law, which has drawn criticism from business representatives, Iowans have wide latitude to claim medical and religious exemptions from employer COVID-19 vaccination mandates and can qualify for unemployment benefits if they are fired for failing to comply.

To gain more compliance among the sheriff's 519 employees, representing about a third of Polk government's total workforce, the county provided self-testing supplies and told workers they could get tested at the Polk County Jail. But Norris said those supplies weren't even picked up until Friday.

More:Gov. Kim Reynolds signs law expanding exemptions from employer vaccine mandates; joins lawsuit against Biden

On Monday, the Polk County Health Department sent the sheriff a message telling him that his staff's test results had to be reported to the state so they could be recorded accurately, Norris said.

Norris said he asked Schneider after a supervisors' meeting Tuesday if he needed any additional help to begin testing.

He said the sheriff pulled down his mask and told him the union had filed a grievance about the policy and he would have to let that play out. Norris said that process could take months, which he considered another excuse from the sheriff.

“I told him that was bull---, because it was,” Norris said. “When it comes to public safety, I’m not here to make friends. I’m here to get the job done.”

Polk County Sheriff Kevin Schneider

President Dave Miller and Office Manager Richard Hoffman of Teamsters Local 238, representing sheriff's office employees, did not return messages Wednesday seeking comment.

Supervisors Chairwoman Angela Connolly said county employees face progressive discipline if they refuse to get vaccinated or tested, which she thinks is more than fair.

The sheriff is a publicly elected official, but his budget is controlled by the supervisors, she said.

Polk County Supervisor Angela Connolly speaks during a news conference with U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Polk County Health Department Director Helen Eddy.

"I absolutely stand with Norris on this," she said. "To me, it's not any different than someone who won't wear a hardhat at a construction site who is told to go home."

Supervisor Matt McCoy said he talked to Schneider when the county was trying to put together its policy and he knows the sheriff is concerned about a worker shortage and staffing a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation with three shifts in a high-risk environment.

"Ultimately we can mandate anything we want and pass it. But if he's got guidance that says this has to play out, and I assume he does, I don't know what you do," McCoy said.

More:Polk Supervisor Matt McCoy seeks to join libel, extortion lawsuit against fellow supervisors and county

When vaccinations first became available last spring, the sheriff wanted his employees to have first access to them ahead of other county employees, Norris said. The county said it needed to follow U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination guidelines.

Later in August, the sheriff indicated he wanted his employees to receive $250 apiece as an incentive for workers to get vaccinations, Norris said.

Ultimately, he said, he can’t allow the person in charge of public safety to refuse to follow a public safety policy. He said the Polk County Jail has been a hotbed of COVID-19 infections and front-line sheriff's deputies need to know if they are putting the public at risk.

Previously:89 inmates, 9 staff members at Polk County Jail have tested positive for COVID-19

Norris said he knows the sheriff is worried about retaining staff, but the county is not mandating vaccines and it's moved testing to the jail to make it  easier.

"We've bent over backwards to make this work for the sheriff," he said. "The real reason (Schneider) isn't testing is because he doesn’t want to. He’s not leading, and he’s letting his staff lead. I can't have that.”

Lee Rood's Reader's Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at lrood@registermedia.com, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.