Silicon Valley transit workers upset over COVID vaccine policy
A VTA light rail train in Mountain View. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    Outraged VTA employees are taking their leaders to task over a mandate requiring them to get vaccinated for COVID-19 by the end of April.

    Santa Clara County public transit workers flooded Thursday’s virtual board meeting to express displeasure with the vaccine policy issued last week. Many are members of VTA’s largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265. They claim the policy will result in the loss of experienced drivers and operators.

    “You either get vaccinated or you get fired,” John Courtney, president and business agent of ATU, said at the meeting. “What is the goal here, VTA?”

    Board member and San Jose Councilmember Raul Peralez said the vaccination policy may be more appropriate to discuss in closed session, noting he has many questions.

    “This does appear to have been an administrative decision, and we haven’t had a discussion at the board in public or in closed session,” said Peralez, addressing VTA General Manager and CEO Carolyn Gonot. “I do think considering the potential implications would be important.”

    Gonot said VTA’s policy follows the recommendations of public health experts who overwhelmingly support vaccinations as the most effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the chance of serious illness, noting VTA has had 254 positive cases since Dec. 27.

    The omicron variant caused a surge in cases in Santa Clara County in December and January. Cases have started to drop in recent weeks, but the county is still emphasizing testing for residents and has forced departments to vaccinate and boost employees who work in higher-risk settings.

    VTA’s policy requires its workforce of more than 2,100 workers to be fully vaccinated by April 29 or face termination. As of Jan. 28, approximately 61% of employees are vaccinated, but only 54% of ATU members—who serve as drivers, operators and mechanics—are immunized for COVID. VTA was late to adopt a policy compared to other Bay Area transit agencies, such as BART and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

    Gonot said VTA has distributed information about the policy to workers and brought in a third party to handle applications for medical or religious exemptions to the vaccine.

    “It is an ever-changing situation, and I can understand some of the frustrations that many of our employees can feel at times,” Gonot added.

    Those frustrations spilled over in public comments as workers spoke out against the vaccine for infringing on their freedom of choice.

    “I’m here to say I’m standing with my brothers and sisters of (Local) 265 who are against this mandate,” said ATU member Eric Chavez. “It’s totally unfair to put this on employees who, when they were hired, it was not a term of employment.”

    Several workers said they oppose the vaccine itself. Some said they didn’t believe in the vaccine, while others were skeptical it would protect them from COVID-19.

    “We shouldn’t be forced to get something that’s unproven at this point just to keep our jobs,” said Tizoc Salinas.

    The FDA granted full approval to Pfizer and Modern’s coronavirus vaccines, which were first implemented under an emergency-use authorization. They are no longer considered experimental drugs.

    A handful of workers who said they have received the vaccine and booster shots also protested the mandate, and several complained that VTA should offer a testing option.

    “We have employees who are not even going to get tested when they have symptoms because they know that if they (do) and test positive, they have to stay home and nobody is going to pay them,” said a radio operator who identified herself as Shauna, adding workers find it challenging to get compensation for contracting COVID-19.

    One unknown consequence of the policy is how many workers will actually resign or otherwise leave VTA because of the requirement. New workers are already required to get vaccinated as a condition of employment, but more seasoned employees haven’t faced this requirement until now. Some workers warned the board that service could suffer as a result of departures.

    “Every day we have cancelled service at every division, and this policy will make the situation worse,” said one worker who only identified himself as Raj. “If this policy is kept in place, we stand to lose folks who have been working for this company 15 to 25 years.”

    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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