COVID order poses staffing challenges for San Jose, county firefighters
San Jose Fire Department trains firefighters in this file photo.

With a countywide COVID vaccination deadline looming next week, local firefighters are bracing for more overtime demands and staffing challenges.

Last month, Santa Clara County ordered workers in high-risk settings to get both COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots by Jan. 24. Workers who don’t comply with the order may no longer work in high-risk settings after Feb. 1. This order applies to workers who have received religious or medical exemptions from local employers, and it also supersedes local health orders in San Jose.

The first deadline has come and gone, and as of Thursday there are still 41 firefighters in San Jose who haven’t received vaccinations due to religious or medical exemptions. San Jose Fire Department and union officials do not know how many vaccinated firefighters have received booster shots.

Matt Tuttle, president of San Jose Firefighters Local 230, told San José Spotlight he believes any noncompliant firefighters will be placed on unpaid leave after next Tuesday, putting additional strain on the department.

“Should we lose these firefighters, we will see an increasing number of firefighters forced to remain at work for extended periods of time beyond their required regular shifts,” Tuttle said. “Many of our employees are already working well beyond their 56-hour work week and it is not uncommon for our paramedic firefighters to work over 96 hours in a week.”

Santa Clara County established its new health order at the end of December, which requires COVID booster shots for workers in high-risk settings such as hospitals and jails. This follows a surge in omicron variant cases. Dr. Sara Cody, county public health officer, said the goal of the order is to prevent regional hospitals from being flooded with patients like they were at the end of 2020.

Earlier this month, the county created a limited waiver process so departments could apply for exemptions for unvaccinated employees to continue working in high-risk settings if there was a risk of staffing shortages.

Erica Ray, spokesperson for the San Jose Fire Department, told San José Spotlight there are 611 vaccinated firefighters, and the department is still collecting information on which employees have received booster shots, with the understanding that people who don’t comply with the health order can no longer work in high-risk settings. There are approximately 719 sworn positions in the department.

“As such, affected employees were or are being engaged in the interactive process to identify reasonable accommodations, which may include modified work or unpaid leave,” Ray said.

Asked how the department will be affected if dozens of firefighters can’t work the frontlines, Ray said the department does not anticipate impacts to staffing as a result of members who choose not get vaccinated. SJFD is not applying for a waiver, she added.

San Jose requires a minimum of 186 firefighters on duty each day. When there aren’t enough to close the gap, SJFD uses overtime to fill in. Tuttle said the department already relies heavily on overtime, noting it responded to roughly 98,000 calls in 2021. According to a recent city memo, San Jose and San Diego have the lowest ratio of firefighters to residents of similarly sized U.S. cities.

“Clearly we continue to do more with less and cannot afford to lose a single firefighter,” he said.

Struggle in the county

Adam Cosner, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1165, believes the health order deadline won’t have any impact on operations for the Santa Clara County Fire Department, but it will likely extend overtime hours. According to a recent department memo, about 93% of employees are fully vaccinated, and a majority have received booster doses.

“At the end of the day, it’s just going to result in more work for my guys,” Cosner told San José Spotlight. “That’s been the thing we’ve been struggling with.”

While overtime may not harm the department’s operations, Cosner said staffing needs to improve before fire season, which will put significant pressure on firefighters across the region.

Some firefighters appear to be outraged by the county health order. During Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Randy Sullivan, a member of the Santa Clara County Fire Department, said hundreds of positions have gone into mandatory overtime due to staff shortages over the past month. He warned the board that the health order will exacerbate these shortages.

“If you live in Cupertino, Campbell, Los Gatos, Saratoga, Los Altos or Los Altos Hills, you are going to be affected,” Sullivan said.

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

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