San Francisco takes COVID vaccine mandate to a new level

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San Francisco’s bold move to require all 37,000 of its municipal workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 has drawn both praise and condemnation, and highlights the tension between protecting individual rights and public good as workplaces finally reopen.

Disputes over vaccination requirements have already erupted across the country, from a North Carolina sheriff’s office to a hospital in Houston and the massive Los Angeles Unified School District.

But San Francisco may be the first major city or county to go so far as to require all workers – from doctors to janitors – to get vaccinated. It’s a milestone that other major cities and counties in the Bay Area don’t seem keen on taking.

San Jose and Oakland have said they have no plans to do so, nor have Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties.

“I think so far we’re the test case,” said Lt. Tracy McCray, vice president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. “I think a lot of people are waiting to see what happens here. “

Maggie Robbins, an occupational health and environmental specialist at the Oakland nonprofit employee advocacy organization, said he was troubled by the extent of the workers affected.

“We think it’s probably not a good idea to force tens of thousands of employees to get vaccinated as a condition of keeping their jobs,” Robbins said. “In some circumstances we find it appropriate, such as with healthcare workers. If it’s about protecting the public, you need to be clear about it. Most employees are probably vaccinated; most of the public is vaccinated. What is the risk here and is it worth stepping on people’s autonomy to do so? “

San Francisco has been one of America’s safest large cities from COVID, thanks to early and aggressive restrictions on gatherings and business activities and widespread public compliance with mask and distancing rules.

COVID cases are low, three in four residents are at least partially vaccinated and eight in 10 out of 12 and more have been vaccinated. Robbins said with such a low risk of the virus and an already high vaccination rate, the mandate “doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.”

But Mawuli Tugbenyoh, head of policy for the San Francisco Department of Human Resources, said the mandate to vaccinate employees is necessary “because our workforce regularly operates in environments where contact with each other and the public can expose them to COVID-19 ”.

“There is also an unjustified and unacceptable risk to health and safety that is imposed on the city, our employees and the public we serve, by those who are not vaccinated against COVID-19,” Tugbenyoh said. Employees of municipal prisons, shelters and skilled nursing facilities are already required to be vaccinated.

Starting Monday, all employees will have 30 days to submit proof of their immunization status. Unvaccinated workers will not be required to be vaccinated until the vaccines have been fully approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration. The city will allow medical and religious dispensations.

The Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines were given in the United States under emergency use authorization after an expedited safety review, and it could be months before the FDA ‘grants full approval.

Although city officials have indicated that those who refuse to be shot could be punished or even fired, Tugbenyoh downplayed the threat and said the city would focus on persuasion.

An online survey found that 58% of city employees said they were vaccinated. More than half of the workforce lives outside of town, many in communities with lower rates.

The proposed policy has met both support and opposition from the city’s workforce, Tugbenyoh said.

“I have personally received many phone calls indicating their pleasure with this move,” Tugbenyoh said. “Of course, with 37,000 employees, there is some setback.”

Lt. McCray said employees appreciate the city delaying the warrant until full FDA approval and allowing exemptions for medical and religious beliefs. But she said there were questions about the security of employees’ personal health information and how the city would handle the exemptions granted – should they still wear masks and be tested regularly for COVID-19?

Service Employees International Union 1021, which represents 20,000 municipal workers, said if it encouraged employees to get vaccinated, it opposed a “threatening warrant.” SEIU 1021 San Francisco Regional Vice President Theresa Rutherford said the story of the “unethical experimentation” experienced by black Americans and other people of color has created “real fears” that should be respected.

Sandra L. Rappaport, an employment lawyer at the Hanson Bridgett law firm in San Francisco, said employees who do not want to be vaccinated may have little recourse if their employer demands it.

“I don’t believe this is the first government employer to require vaccinations,” Rappaport said. “Certainly, public hospitals have required staff to be vaccinated against certain diseases for some time. Unless an employee has a disability or a religious belief that prevents them from being vaccinated, an employer has no obligation to accommodate an employee who does not wish to be vaccinated.

Employers do not appear to face a great risk of liability, either for having workers vaccinated or for a sick employee infecting others, Rappaport said. Workers’ compensation would cover an employee who incurs treatment costs for a side effect of the vaccine, and “the likelihood that someone can prove that their illness was contracted by a specific city employee who was not. vaccinated looks pretty thin, ”she said.

But Robbins said that even though employers can force the vaccination, that doesn’t mean they should.

“Part of the reason employers don’t jump on this bandwagon is because they have the same sensitivity as me – is that appropriate? Robbins said. “When does an employer have the capacity to control a worker’s personal decisions about their own body, even if they are good for them? “

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