VTA vaccination rate surges to 90% as holdouts face possible pink slip

VTA vaccination rate surges to 90% as holdouts face possible pink slip

In total 1,937 employees are fully vaccinated – a 272-person increase from early April, when only 78% of the agency’s employees had reported at least two shots – according to data shared at a VTA board meeting.
May 10, 2022

By Eliyahu Kamisher, Bay Area News Group

The chances of hopping on a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) bus with an unvaccinated driver are increasingly slim as the agency reports a 90% COVID vaccination rate after threatening to fire employees who didn’t get the jab by the end of April. Still, nearly 100 holdouts have yet to report their vaccine status or receive an exemption and could soon face pink slips.

In total 1,937 employees are fully vaccinated – a 272-person increase from early April, when only 78% of the agency’s employees had reported at least two shots – according to data shared at a VTA board meeting. The flood of newly reported vaccinations came ahead of an April 29 deadline requiring staff to get inoculated against COVID-19 or face possible termination.

VTA’s vaccine mandate comes months after most Bay Area transit agencies wielded the threat of terminations to boost their own inoculation rates.

BART and Muni resorted to firing or forcing the early retirement of a combined 127 employees, a small fraction of their staff, after enforcing mandates in the fall. Both agencies now report vaccination rates above 99%. AC Transit in the East Bay implemented its own vaccine mandates last month and reported a 91.5% vaccination rate — an increase from a self-reported tally of 52% in December when workers were not required to disclose vaccination status.

The VTA, which is its own special district, was not subject to South Bay city and county vaccine mandates that went into effect around eight months ago and sparked outcries from employee unions and lawsuits. That allowed the transit operator to keep its services running with only about 54% of its frontline workers vaccinated compared to upwards of 90% for other public agencies in Santa Clara County.

The rising vaccine rate may also bring some relief to immunocompromised passengers anxious about riding public transit amid rising case rates and as the VTA, along with most other transit agencies, ended mandatory masking policies last month.

“I’m not sure why 100% of VTA drivers aren’t vaccinated,” said Thom Mayer, 73, who rides VTA transit with a wheelchair and said high vaccination rates are particularly important for him.

Bus operators tie restraints to his wheelchair to keep it from tipping over, Mayer said. “They get up close and personal.”

The majority of newly reported vaccinations came from employees in the VTA’s largest labor union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents bus drivers, light rail operators, and mechanics.

In total, about 169 employees have not provided proof of at least a single dose of vaccine, while 70 of those workers have received vaccination exemptions on religious or medical grounds, leaving around 99 people facing possible firings. The holdouts will soon receive letters in the mail notifying them of the VTA’s disciplinary plans, including possible termination, and enter into a hearing process where they can seek to oppose termination.

Meanwhile, four VTA employees chose to retire early rather than submit to the jab, VTA official Jim Lawson said during a board meeting last week.

John Courtney, president of the ATU union, said the VTA should be trying to accommodate unvaccinated employees with a weekly testing option to avoid firing drivers who have dedicated years of their lives to the agency and kept Santa Clara County moving during the depths of the pandemic. Caltrain and Los Angeles Metro, the largest transit agency in the state, have allowed testing options for unvaccinated workers to stave off firings.

“They’re not backing off. They’ve pushed so many people into a corner,” said Courtney. “These numbers are people, human beings with jobs and families,” he added.

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