COVID vaccine deadline hits Silicon Valley transit workers
A VTA light rail train is pictured in this file photo.

Today marks the deadline for VTA employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19 if they want to keep their jobs, and scores of workers still haven’t submitted proof of vaccination.

A VTA spokesperson told San José Spotlight that as of Wednesday, 1,851 workers have reported being fully vaccinated against COVID-19 out of the agency’s 2,142 employees—an 84.6% completion rate—which leaves more than 200 employees who have not submitted proof of vaccination. VTA has granted 70 religious or medical exemptions.

VTA officials announced a policy in January making COVID vaccinations mandatory for its workforce. After Friday, any employee who is unvaccinated or hasn’t reported their vaccination status will be in violation of the policy and may face termination.

Even if workers are still unvaccinated next week, it’s unlikely to hamper transit service. In an email circulated to staff earlier this week, Brandi Childress, chief of staff to the general manager, said noncompliant workers are required to report to work, wear a mask and test for COVID-19 weekly until a decision is made on their employment. VTA recently dropped its mask mandate for passengers and employees.

VTA workers who spoke with San José Spotlight said they object to the policy, with many seeing vaccinations as a personal choice that shouldn’t be mandated by their employer. Several shared feelings of anxiety and uncertainty about what the next weeks hold in store for them. Some said they were concerned about workers getting disciplined and terminated so close to the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at the Guadalupe light rail yard in downtown San Jose.

“People are going to be very upset,” one worker, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation, told San José Spotlight. “They might be picketing, they might walk out—anything could happen, really.”

John Courtney, president and business agent of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265, has repeatedly spoken out against the vaccine policy, saying it will cost the public transit agency experienced drivers. The union represents the majority of VTA workers.

Courtney told San José Spotlight ATU filed a grievance earlier this week with VTA over the vaccine policy.

“I have no idea what VTA’s plans are,” he said. “They control the situation and we can only react because they’ve decided to not make the union a partner in coming to some sort of agreement about how to handle what they wanted to do with regards to vaccinations.”

Some workers close to retirement may accelerate their departure plans. One worker, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, plans on retiring after this week. She told San José Spotlight she wants to work longer, but refuses to get vaccinated.

“I am 100% retiring because of the mandate,” the worker said. “I think working for the government is great, but not now if they’re going to be forcing you to put stuff in your body.”

A VTA spokesperson said 11 people retired between February and March, and numbers for April aren’t yet available.

“There was no indication that those retirements were connected to the vaccination policy,” the spokesperson said, adding the majority were employees who worked at VTA for 20 years or more.

Still, between retirees and workers who may be terminated, there are questions about how this policy will impact staffing at VTA in the long term. An ATU member, who requested anonymity, told San José Spotlight if VTA wants to terminate a worker, the agency has to give the employee an opportunity for a hearing.

“The hearing is basically set by VTA, and it’s kind of a kangaroo court because the hearing officer is an employee of VTA, and they’re typically management,” the member said. “If VTA is intent on terminating somebody, the hearing is a formality, really.”

The member added that a person can ask the union to arbitrate their case with the agency once a decision is made, but these cases can take one to two years, and the union already has a backlog.

One worker who survived last year’s shooting told San José Spotlight he and some coworkers are scared the vaccine policy may stir up enough anger to lead to another shooting.

“You could be working here for 30 years, then all of a sudden you don’t want to get vaccinated for whatever reason and you’re terminated. You don’t think someone’s going to be really upset about that?” said the worker, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation. “Maybe nothing will happen, maybe it might just be people get sent home, terminated, that’s it. But we don’t know, we’re all in fear of that.”

The worker added he wasn’t sure if he’d come to work on Friday.

Contact Eli Wolfe at [email protected] or @EliWolfe4 on Twitter. 

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