Silicon Valley transit agency adopts COVID vaccine policy for workers
An empty VTA light rail train. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    Amid increasing COVID-19 infections, VTA will require all 2,000 of its employees and contractors to be fully vaccinated by April 29.

    The public transit agency, which hinted a vaccine policy was in the pipeline last week, announced the mandate Thursday. Employees who get an approved medical or religious exemption must test negative each week in order to work. The policy only applies to current workers—the agency has required COVID vaccinations for new hires since last August. Employees who don’t comply with the policy will be disciplined or terminated.

    “We have a responsibility to protect our employees and the public and help bring an end to this devastating pandemic,” VTA general manager and CEO Carolyn Gonot said in a statement.

    The policy follows an explosion of COVID infections at the agency since the start of the new year. From September through December 2021, VTA recorded 18 cases. In January, the agency is reporting 142 cases, likely due to the highly infectious omicron variant. Approximately 61% of VTA employees are vaccinated, and just 54% of frontline drivers and operators have received both doses.

    VTA was late to announce a vaccine mandate compared to other Bay Area transit agencies, such as BART and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. John Courtney, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265, told San José Spotlight he’s unhappy with the policy, which he believes will lead to resignations and terminations that will affect service.

    “I’ve already had phone calls this morning from folks who want to know what their retirement would look like because of this mandate,” Courtney said. “We’re already shorthanded, we’re already missing service and this is only going to compound it.”

    Last week, VTA workers circulated a message on social media urging colleagues to call in sick to protest the mandate. Employees who spoke with San José Spotlight said the action was not sanctioned by ATU and did not appear to have much of an impact on service. The workers requested anonymity to avoid retaliation.

    One worker said they don’t believe the vaccine mandate will affect staffing long-term, but also noted service cancellations are happening every day due to shortages of light rail operators and drivers.

    “Unfortunately, the coronavirus has been sweeping across our agency,” the worker said.

    A different VTA employee said many aren’t happy about the policy. They noted some employees are already working long hours to cover for people who are out sick, injured or on trauma leave related to the mass shooting that happened last May.

    “We don’t have any relief,” the worker told San José Spotlight, noting some operators are working 12-hour shifts—the maximum allowed in a single day. “They just don’t have personnel to replace somebody when they call in sick.”

    Monica Mallon, founder of Turnout4Transit and a San José Spotlight columnist, said she’s troubled some VTA workers are reluctant to get vaccinated because it sends the message that riding public transit isn’t safe. This could potentially derail the agency’s efforts to increase ridership, which has plummeted over the pandemic and after the mass shooting when VTA had to shutter its rail yard.

    “I’m hoping they’ll just take the vaccine and move on,” Mallon said. “If they don’t, it could really impact things for another year.”

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

    Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story reported that Caltrain has a vaccine mandate for its employees. The agency does not.

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