As the deadline for city workers to get vaccinated or face potential termination draws near, city employee Kim Cox is feeling the pressure.
“I just received a threatening letter from HR today that states, this is a warning that you will be possibly disciplined or terminated,” said Cox, who works in the temporary signs division at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, where she creates placards for street closures and other traffic management purposes.
Cox is among the 640 SFMTA employees who have yet to get a COVID-19 shot as of Sept. 30, representing about 11% of the agency’s workforce, the highest number of unvaccinated employees of any city department.
Almost all of these individuals would lose their jobs on Nov. 1, the deadline imposed by The City’s vaccine mandate, unless they are fully vaccinated. To be considered fully protected against the coronavirus, workers must get their final shot in a two-dose series or single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine about two weeks before the November deadline, by Oct. 17.
“We absolutely do not want any of our employees to lose their jobs or their incomes,” Jeffrey Tumlin, director at SFMTA, said during a public meeting on Tuesday. “It will significantly impact transit operations and parking control across The City.”
Of those at SFMTA who remain unvaccinated or have yet to report their vaccination status, 313 are operators. That’s about 15% of the employees who drive Muni buses and trains.
Their termination would result in “severe and unpredictable” cuts to Muni service. SFMTA is currently crafting a range of contingency service plans to prepare for what’s expected to be a significant cutback to the number of operators available.
Additionally, the loss of these employees would affect vehicle and parking enforcement, school crossing guards and the agency’s ability to support large events and venues such as Outside Lands and the Chase Center.
While the vast majority of The City’s employees are fully vaccinated, the small fraction who remain reluctant to the shot could put colleagues or the public at risk of contracting the virus.
They could also threaten to disrupt basic city operations such as law enforcement and street cleaning. The San Francisco Police Department has already begun shuffling resources in response to the more than 200 officers and staff who are unvaccinated and could be placed on administrative leave.
When it comes to Muni, the impact of vaccine hesitancy would have dramatic short consequences, but it could also jeopardize the long-term recovery of the agency from the pandemic.
As it stands, Muni only plans to reach 85% of pre-COVID-19 service levels by February 2022, almost two years after the shelter-in-place order forced the suspension of all but a barebones service network.
Should hundreds of unvaccinated operators be laid off, it could delay the timeline for full pre-pandemic service by as much as 18 months, according to the agency.
Cox is willing to get vaccinated. For her, it’s a matter of timing as she wades through health concerns related to diabetes and high cholesterol, which she hopes to get under better control with her doctor before getting the shot. She is now applying for a medical exemption from the Nov. 1 vaccine mandate deadline.
But there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the COVID-19 vaccine is harmful for people with high cholesterol or diabetes. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection says those with both conditions put individuals at a higher risk of COVID-19.
“This disease kills people with chronic disease. Honest to God, we are really down to the wire. We need to get this done before we get something worse and while we understand this delta variant,” said Dr. George Rutherford, an infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco.
“There have been 240 million vaccines delivered, we understand the side effect profile very well by now,” he said. “People with chronic conditions should be getting vaccinated first, not the last.”
That has not stopped about 50 SFMTA employees from seeking a medical or religious exemption from the vaccine. And some who have applied but have yet to hear back are now concerned they won’t have time to appeal their case if it’s denied or not reviewed in time.
“The exemption application process has been extremely cumbersome and delayed for some members, and there has been misinformation given,” said Roger Marenco, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 250A, which represents 2,200 transit workers in San Francisco.
One member said she applied for a religious exemption this summer with a form she was issued, but several weeks later was asked to complete new forms for the same request. “It’s been really frustrating and The City isn’t trying to help accommodate the people through this process,” Marenco said.
Dante King, an organizer for the Black Employees Alliance, a coalition of Black city employees, said messages from members from across different agencies spanning SFMTA, the police department and public health have been pouring in recently as the deadline to get vaccinated draws in and exemptions remain processing.
“There have been so many messages coming in from people in different departments, we’ve been overwhelmed,” said King. “It makes city employees lose faith in the process and what leadership is conveying. We have seen here recently that the rules don’t apply to everyone.”
SFMTA employees were among the groups eligible for priority access to the COVID-19 shots along with individuals who worked in food and agriculture, education and emergency services.
Cox’s openness to the vaccine is somewhat new. She admits she had even more concerns previously about how it was made and its efficacy. But a trusted family member who works in the medical field helped answer some of the questions she had, and she now believes it’s generally a safe choice.
“I’m very open to it now. I know the importance of when I was a child and got other vaccinations and those still protect me today,” said Cox.
But like a portion of her colleagues, Cox wants more time before she has to get the shot. SFMTA has hosted pop-up vaccine clinics at facilities around The City, plus Q&A sessions with health experts and other one-on-one outreach with hesitant employees. On Oct. 13, SFMTA will host another info session with Ayanna Bennett, director of the Office of Health Equity at the Department of Public Health, in an attempt to convince any holdouts before Nov. 1.
Cox has worked in the signs division at SFMTA for over five years and has been employed by The City for nearly a decade. But if her exemption is not approved or she can’t work from home, her future there is uncertain.
“I’m trying to be hopeful that they will grant me an exemption. If they don’t, I’ll have to look at other options,” said Cox, who works in the Bayview. “But I won’t do anything to jeopardize my health now.”