San Jose transit workers face discipline for lack of COVID shots
A VTA light rail train is pictured in this file photo.

VTA has mailed its first batch of disciplinary letters to workers who refuse to comply with the agency’s COVID-19 vaccine policy, and more are likely on the way.

VTA sent out about 50 letters on Friday to workers who are not vaccinated or received an exemption, according to an agency worker. The letters propose termination for individuals who won’t get vaccinated following the April 29 deadline.

It’s unclear how many workers may ultimately lose their jobs because of the policy VTA announced in January. According to the agency’s latest report to the board of directors last week, 1,937 workers—roughly 90.5% of agency staff—are vaccinated. Seventy individuals have religious or medical exemptions. VTA employs over 2,100 people.

VTA spokesperson Stacey Hendler Ross told San José Spotlight she couldn’t answer questions about how many workers have received proposed termination letters and couldn’t describe VTA’s timeline for disciplinary hearings.

“This process is not that cut and dried. It will play out over a period of time according to the bargaining unit of the employees,” Hendler Ross said. “Numbers are still changing on a daily basis regarding compliance with the policy as they are processed.”

The number of employees facing disciplinary action is large enough that VTA recently held an internal meeting for staff on who will serve as hearing officers on an ad hoc basis to address the vaccine cases. According to VTA sources, the first hearings are scheduled for next week.

Most workers potentially facing termination are members of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265, which represents bus drivers, train operators, mechanics and other essential employees. John Courtney, ATU president and business agent, said most workers facing termination are light rail operators and bus drivers. He claims the public transit agency’s decision to push forward with terminations is costly and unnecessary, given the option to have workers wear masks and take regular COVID-19 tests.

VTA repealed its mask mandate for passengers and employees last month after a federal court ruling undid the countrywide mandate requiring masks on public transit and airplanes.

“Obviously this is a complete waste of resources they don’t have,” Courtney told San José Spotlight. “It’s very callous, very cold and very inhumane. After what we as an agency have gone through over the past year, you’d think they’d learn some lessons from the past.”

The disciplinary hearings for workers are coming just a couple weeks before the one-year anniversary of the mass shooting at VTA’s rail yard in downtown San Jose. A disgruntled worker killed nine co-workers in the attack, and another who was traumatized by the shooting died by suicide months later. Courtney said VTA plans to demolish the building where the shooting happened starting today.

VTA workers who spoke with San José Spotlight said many of them oppose the mandate—including those who are fully vaccinated—because they see it as a personal choice. One employee who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation said there hasn’t been any major push for a strike or walkout. He noted people aren’t sure what is going to happen to the workers who refuse to get vaccinated.

“It’s really a wait and see situation right now,” the worker told San José Spotlight.

VTA officials have said they don’t anticipate terminations will affect service for passengers who rely on bus and light rail. Transit advocate and San José Spotlight columnist Monica Mallon said the impact to service from terminations will depend on several factors, including what type of workers get pushed out. She noted VTA has had significant operator shortages in the past and figured out workarounds to bring in new hires.

“It kind of depends on what they offer (to workers) in terms of overtime, and what they do to incentivize hiring,” Mallon told San José Spotlight, adding VTA could offer hiring bonuses. “The ball is in their court on what to do next.”

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

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