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Is LA County putting itself at legal risk by sending light-duty probation officers home?

In a February memo, the probation department announced plans to redeploy 250 field officers on 60-day rotations to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall and the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility

Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall

Los Angeles County moved some 275 youths to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey, pictured here, in May 2023. (Photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Dean Musgrove/TNS

By Jason Henry
Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — A new mandate forcing Los Angeles County probation officers physically unable to work in the juvenile halls to stay home could expose the county to significant liability as it potentially violates federal laws requiring employers to provide reasonable accommodations to injured and disabled workers, according to legal experts.

In a February memo, Probation Department Chief Guillermo Viera Rosa announced plans to redeploy 250 field officers on 60-day rotations to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall and the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility, where persistent under-staffing has led to such poor conditions that state regulators ordered the facilities to close if improvements are not made by April 16.

The redeployments, chosen by seniority, came with a caveat that employment attorneys say could lead to a slew of lawsuits.

Anyone unable to report as “full duty” or to pass training requirements was instructed to remain at home and not report to their regular work location. Those employees, some of whom have medical restrictions, were expected to use sick or vacation time to cover their missed shifts, even though they are physically capable of performing the office work they did previously.

“That seems to be classic disability discrimination,” said Brad Gage, an employment attorney who is not currently representing any probation officers. “The department is making these adverse actions and punishing employees because of disability.”

The Probation Department did not respond to questions about the legality of the mandate. Viera Rosa’s memo stated an “interactive process meeting,” in which an employer determines whether reasonable accommodations can be provided, will be initiated for every employee who is sent home, but it does not specify a timeline.

Can’t switch roles

Employees with medical restrictions who are capable of doing their existing jobs can’t be switched to a new role with different responsibilities and then punished for being unable to do it, Gage said. The new policy likely exposes the department to litigation, damages employees’ morale and could scare away new recruits, he said.

“What is going to happen in the future is going to become an even bigger crisis,” Gage said.

At least one class-action lawsuit has already been filed as a result of a policy that sent field officers on light duty to the juvenile halls twice a week.

Five probation officers filed the suit, estimated to include a class of at least 100 employees, against the department March 12 . The five officers — Raul Gutierrez, Jason Herrera, Daniel Parra, Paul Perkins and Jeffrey Zetner — allege they were denied reasonable accommodations for their medical injuries and restrictions when they were sent to the juvenile halls, where they exacerbated existing injuries or received new ones after having to physically intervene to either protect themselves or others.

The lawsuit alleges they did not receive adequate training or the appropriate equipment.

Officers in Catch-22The employees faced a Catch-22, a paradoxical order in which they were told to avoid physical altercations but put in situations where it was impossible to do so, according to their attorney, Arnold Peter.

Two of the officers, both on light duty, were left alone for half an hour in a unit with 30 youth — in violation of minimum staffing requirements — and had to defend themselves from attacks, Peter said. Another officer had to step in to help a female officer during an assault.

“His choice was to sit there and not do anything or come to the aid of the female officer who was being physically assaulted,” Peter said.

Protective order will be soughtPeter’s firm receives about 15 to 20 calls from Probation Department employees every day, he said. He now plans to request a temporary protective order barring the department from redeploying officers on light duty from the field.

The Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General, in a March 7 report, criticized the department for placing officers on light duty at key outposts at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall, where they ultimately became the “last line of defense” during an escape attempt in November.

Gutierrez, one of Peter’s clients, was recently sent home as a result of the new mandate and told to stay there until he is able to return to full duty, Peter said.

“These deputy probation officers are sitting at home, not doing anything,” he said. “They’re not performing their regular duties, they’re not at the juvenile halls, their workloads are getting backed up.”

Peter’s firm, the Peter Law Group, recently settled a lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections for $5.1 million that accused the department of failing to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant employees.

Is it retaliation?

Both Gage and Peter questioned why the department would not simply allow those unable to work in the juvenile halls to continue performing their existing duties. Forcing them to use sick or vacation time instead could be seen as retaliation, they said in separate interviews.

“There are specific regulations that say you cannot require someone to use paid leave as a form of reasonable accommodation,” Peter said.

One probation employee who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear for their employment said the department has struggled to find enough employees to meet the initial 250 redeployments. Officers were called based on seniority and the department was contacting people with more than 15 years of service as of the week of March 18.

“If you can’t get the first 250, who is going to come after them to do the next 60 days?” the employee said. “They’re going to be stuck.”

The employee estimated hundreds could not comply with the order due to “light duty” restrictions.

“I would say over half of the field staff at this point are over 50 years old,” the employee said. “You have a lot of people who have health problems.”

Many of those affected work in adult probation and either have not worked in juvenile halls for decades, or have never worked in the halls. They travel to probationers’ homes or meet with them in the offices. Their work isn’t strenuous and there isn’t the same potential risk of physical violence that there is in the juvenile halls.

Adult supervision critical

The department reported in June that the adult field services division handled about 20,000 individuals total, with a majority of officers averaging about 51 cases at a time.

Some impacted by the mandate produce critical reports evaluating criminal defendants used by judges every day.

“If you have any work restrictions at all, you have to stay home. They are not allowed to work in their offices and they are unable to work in the juvenile halls,” the employee said. “This has resulted in entire area offices being depleted.”

The employee worried that probationers and parolees, especially those released under AB 109, are not receiving proper supervision as a result.

Last year, the Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General found the department failed to act on information that a probationer was using drugs and carrying a firearm in the weeks before he killed two El Monte police officers and then himself in 2022.

In a March 19 statement, the department denied the redeployments have affected the field offices.

“Supervisors are on-site and available to ensure client and supervision services are provided as needed,” Deputy Chief Kimberly Epps stated.

Long-term staffing plan

Later this month, the Los Angeles County Probation Oversight Commission plans to call an emergency meeting to demand answers about the department’s long-term staffing plan. Chair Eduardo Mundo, a former probation officer of 30 years, said he believes field services has room for “right-sizing,” but that he doesn’t know how the department intends to sustain the unpopular mandate without staff buy-in.

“That’s what I want to know,” Mundo said. “What’s the end game on this? Are we going to be in front of the board of corrections every 60 days?”

The Board of State and Community Corrections, the state regulatory agency responsible for overseeing jails and juvenile facilities, is expected to decide the fate of Los Padrinos and Barry J. Nidorf at its April 11 meeting. Inspectors will visit both facilities before the meeting to determine whether the department has corrected a series of troubling deficiencies identified last year.

Almost all of the areas of noncompliance relate to low staffing.

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