January 28, 2022
Amid rising COVID-19 infections, VTA will require its 2,000 employees and contractors to be fully vaccinated by April 29.
The transit agency, which hinted a vaccination policy was in the works last week, announced the mandate on Thursday. Employees who obtain an approved medical or religious exemption must test negative weekly 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 do not comply with the policy will be disciplined or terminated.
“We have a responsibility to protect our employees and the public and to help end this devastating pandemic,” VTA Managing Director 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 to December 2021, VTA recorded 18 cases. In January, the agency reports 142 cases, likely due to the highly infectious omicron variant. About 61% of VTA employees are vaccinated and only 54% of front-line drivers and operators have received both doses.
VTA was slow to announce a vaccination mandate compared to other Bay Area transit agencies, such as BART, Caltrain and Muni. John Courtney, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265, told the San Jose Spotlight he was unhappy with the policy, which he said will lead to resignations and layoffs that will affect the service.
“I’ve already had phone calls this morning from people wanting to know what their retirement would be like because of this tenure,” Courtney said. “We’re already shorthanded, we’re already underserved and that’s only going to make it worse.”
Last week, VTA workers posted a message on social media urging their colleagues to call in sick in protest against the mandate. Employees who spoke with San Jose Spotlight said the action was not sanctioned by ATU and did not appear to have much impact on service. The workers requested anonymity to avoid retaliation.
One worker said he did not believe the vaccine mandate would affect long-term staffing, but also noted that service cancellations were happening every day due to shortages of light rail operators and drivers.
“Unfortunately, the coronavirus has swept through our agency,” the worker said.
Another VTA employee said many were unhappy with the policy. They noted that some employees were already working long hours to cover those who were 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 Jose Spotlight, noting that some operators are working 12-hour shifts, the maximum allowed in a single day. “They just don’t have staff to cover for someone when they are sick.”
Monica Mallon, founder of Turnout4Transit and San José Spotlight columnist, said she was troubled by some VTA workers who are reluctant to get vaccinated because it sends the message that public transportation is not safe. It could potentially derail the agency’s efforts to increase ridership, which has plummeted during the pandemic and after the mass shooting when VTA had to close its rail yard.
“I hope they just take the vaccine and move on,” Mallon said. “If they don’t, it could really impact things for another year.”
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