Religious and medical COVID vaccine mandate exemptions: Here’s what city workers need to know

‘There has been no transparency at all’

The clock is running out for San Francisco city employees to get vaccinated by Nov. 1 or potentially face termination. But more than 200 workers are still waiting to find out if they will be exempt from the requirement due to religious or medical reasons.

Although the vast majority of The City’s employees are fully vaccinated, the looming deadline is stoking fear and frustration among a small number of employees who sought the exemptions and are finding little clarity in the process.

“There has been no transparency at all and employees are not aware of the standards they’re using to deny these requests,” said Dante King, an organizer for the Black Employees Alliance, a coalition of Black city employees.

As of Oct. 6, no exemption requests had been approved for any city employees working for the police, fire or public health departments, as well as the San Francisco Municipal Transit Authority and Mayor’s Office.

By Oct. 13, employees who occasionally work in high-risk settings must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. By Nov. 1, all other city employees must be fully vaccinated.

Employees who believe they qualify for an exemption from the vaccination requirement must first apply for an exemption from the department where they work. This involves filling out a set of forms detailing the reason for the exemption and providing signed references from doctors or religious leaders depending on the nature of the exemption.

According to city policy, departments then review the employees’ requests and supporting documentation to determine whether employees have a qualifying medical condition or have stated a sincerely held religious belief that prohibits from receiving the vaccination. If the department believes that an exemption is appropriate, then it must also determine if employees can continue to safely perform essential functions.

San Francisco’s policy does not define which religious or medical conditions could qualify for an exemption and departments review applications on a case-by-case basis.

“An accommodation is not reasonable if it would pose an undue hardship on operations and present a substantial risk of harm associated with having unvaccinated employees in the workplace,” the policy reads.

Those who are granted an exemption must test weekly for COVID-19 using a PCR or antigen test and wear a mask indoors or outdoors within six feet of another person. However, masking and testing alone are not an acceptable substitute for the vaccine for some employees working in high-risk settings.

If the employee fails to comply with the approved accommodations, including testing and masking requirements, the department will revoke the accommodation. If employees submitted a request late or do not know the status of the request in time to get a vaccine before the deadline, they could be placed on leave while the request is pending. Employees can file an internal complaint if their request is denied.

If requests are denied because employees do not qualify for a medical or religious exemption, then employees must get vaccinated or they will receive a notice with disciplinary steps that could lead to termination.

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