Nevada prisons abandon plan to fire employees who did not get COVID vaccine

The Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) is dropping plans to fire employees who did not heed a now-expired COVID vaccination mandate.

The decision, announced in an all-staff memo dated Thursday, is an about-face for a department that in late January expressed plans to go full speed ahead on terminations for unvaccinated employees starting in February or March. The vaccine mandate for correctional workers lapsed after a plan to extend the temporary requirement failed on a tie vote of the Legislative Commission.

“After careful review and discussions, there's no path forward for NDOC to continue disciplinary action after the emergency regulation expired and the Legislative Commission failed to approve the regulation,” a spokeswoman for the governor’s office told The Nevada Independent on Thursday.

A spokeswoman for the prison agency told The Nevada Independent on Wednesday that no employees had been terminated on account of the vaccination requirement. In the memo, the agency also clarified to staff that “any letter of reprimand (LOR) that was distributed as a result of failing to comply with the mandate is hereby rescinded and is no longer contained within … your personnel file.”

Officials said at the late January meeting that more than 83 percent of prison staff were vaccinated, but 361 employees had requested exemptions — the majority of which were rejected. Employees who were not vaccinated had received reprimands in November, after the Nov. 1 deadline for vaccination passed.

“The department stands ready to proceed with disciplinary actions against employees who disregarded the deadline established by the lawful temporary vaccine mandate issued in December of 2021 in a fair, progressive and reasonable manner,” said Bill Gittere, NDOC’s deputy director of operations, at a Board of Prison Commissioners meeting in January.

By contrast, the memo issued Tuesday notes the requirement has been inactive since Jan. 12 and appeals of the rule are no longer required.

State prisons have experienced debilitating surges in COVID, including during the record-setting Omicron wave in January, when staff were shuffled from one facility to another to cover vacancies and services were reduced. But the coronavirus situation in the state has quickly improved, with the seven-day average of new cases in Nevada now a fraction of what it was at its recent peak.

Still, the Nevada Department of Corrections continues to experience significant staffing shortages. In January, one in four frontline corrections positions was vacant.

“Adequate staffing continues to be a concern for both the Governor and the Department,” Sisolak’s office said in a statement.