Silicon Valley transit agency lacks COVID vaccine mandate
A woman boards a VTA bus near Diridon Station in downtown San Jose. File photo.

VTA has a substantial number of unvaccinated employees, but the South Bay transit agency isn’t taking any steps to require a COVID-19 vaccine.

As of Tuesday, 1,258 workers are fully vaccinated, while 1,470 are at least partially vaccinated—69.37% of VTA’s workforce. The agency has about 2,100 employees. Since the public transit agency is an independent special district—its workers are neither employed by the city nor the county—workers aren’t subject to the county mandate. It’s conceivable that 30% of the workforce could remain unvaccinated.

Santa Clara County is requiring workers in all departments to get vaccinated by the end of the month or get approved for a medical or religious exemption—as is the city of San Jose.

“Currently, VTA does not have a vaccine mandate in effect for its employees, although we make regular efforts to encourage employees to get vaccinated, periodically making vaccine clinics and testing sites available at work sites,” a VTA spokesperson told San José Spotlight.

From December 2020 through late June, VTA recorded 113 positive COVID-19 infections among workers who filed workers’ compensation claims.

VTA employees were among the first frontline workers to qualify for vaccinations earlier this year. In March, the agency announced it would work with the county to implement vaccines. Like other local agencies, VTA received some complaints when it told workers to return to the office. About 300 workers telecommuted during the pandemic, but the agency has previously said 75% of its workforce cannot do their jobs from home.

Monica Mallon, a local transit advocate and founder of Turnout4Transit, said it’s likely difficult for VTA to enforce a mandate, as service could potentially be affected if enough workers refuse a COVID vaccine. She isn’t aware of other transit agencies in the Bay Area imposing mandates.

“VTA has probably done the most in terms of vaccine encouragement and also testing encouragement,” she told San José Spotlight.

VTA does follow a mask mandate for employees who work on buses, trains or in its facilities. A VTA worker told San José Spotlight the transit agency is offering N95 masks to employees who are not vaccinated.

The worker, who requested anonymity to avoid retaliation, said VTA issued a memo in the spring indicating it wants workers to get vaccinated, and to have unvaccinated employees tested on a regular basis. But the mass shooting in May that killed nine employees derailed those plans, the worker said.

“I think they’ve taken a more ‘wait and see’ approach to see what the other transit agencies are doing in the Bay Area before they make some definitive directive,” the worker said.

Some employees are adamant about not getting vaccinated, the worker added, also claiming there’s talk of falsifying vaccine cards if a mandate is imposed.

“It concerns me, because it would kind of present a false sense of security for everybody,” the worker said.

John Courtney, president of ATU Local 265—which represents a majority of VTA workers—told San José Spotlight if VTA does impose a vaccine mandate, the union will have a chance to bargain for benefits it secured earlier this year. San Jose firefighter and police unions are fighting a plan to mandate COVID vaccinations for city employees.

“The union has brought testing on-site to the property and VTA has been cooperating and compensating us for the time we get tested,” he said.

Courtney said he’s vaccinated and estimates about two-thirds of his local members have gotten the jab. But he’s concerned VTA isn’t spending enough time addressing other health and safety hazards that affect the workforce.

“When there’s something that could harm you in your backyard, you’re worried about protecting employees and people,” he said. “But when our folks are out there getting assaulted and yelled at, that’s not a priority.”

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

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