San Francisco’s bold decision to require all 37,000 of its municipal employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has drawn both praise and condemnation and highlights the tension between protecting individual rights and the public good as workplaces finally reopen.
Disputes over vaccination requirements already have erupted across the country, from a North Carolina sheriff’s office to a Houston hospital 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 shots. It’s a step other large Bay Area cities and counties don’t seem eager to follow.
San Jose and Oakland said they have no plans to do so, and neither do 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 up here.”
Maggie Robbins, an occupational and environmental health specialist at Oakland employee advocacy nonprofit Worksafe, said the breadth of workers affected makes it troubling.
“We think it’s probably not a great idea mandating tens of thousands of employees to get vaccinated as a condition of keeping their job,” Robbins said. “In certain circumstances, we deem that appropriate, like with health care workers. If it’s about protecting the public, you have to articulate that clearly. Most of the employees are probably vaccinated; most of the public is vaccinated. What’s the risk here, and is it worth stepping on people’s autonomy to do it?”
San Francisco has been among the most COVID-safe big cities in America, thanks to early and aggressive restrictions on gatherings and business activity and widespread public compliance with mask and distancing rules.
COVID-19 cases are low, three out of four residents are at least partly vaccinated, and eight in 10 of those 12 and older have had the shots. Robbins said that with such a low virus risk and high vaccination rate already, the mandate “doesn’t to me seem to make a whole lot of sense.”
But Mawuli Tugbenyoh, policy chief of San Francisco’s Human Resources department, said the employee vaccine mandate is needed “because our workforce routinely operates in environments where contact with each other and the public can expose them to COVID-19.”
“There is also an undue and unacceptable health and safety risk that is imposed upon the city, our employees and the public we serve, by those who are not vaccinated against COVID-19,” Tugbenyoh said. Employees in city jails, shelters and skilled nursing facilities already are required to get the shots.
Starting Monday, all employees will have 30 days to submit proof of their vaccination status. Unvaccinated workers won’t be required to get the shots until after the vaccines’ full approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The city will allow medical and religious exemptions.
The Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson vaccines have been administered in the U.S. under emergency use authorization after an expedited safety review, and it could be months before the FDA grants full approval.
Though city officials have indicated those who refuse to get the shots could be disciplined or even fired, Tugbenyoh downplayed the threat and said the city will focus on persuasion.
An online survey indicated that 58% of the city’s employees said they were vaccinated. More than half of the workforce lives outside the city, many in communities where rates are lower.
The proposed policy has been met with both support and opposition among the city workforce, Tugbenyoh said.
“I’ve personally gotten many phone calls indicating their pleasure with this move,” Tugbenyoh said. “Of course, with 37,000 employees, there’s some pushing back to some degree.”
Lt. McCray said employees appreciate that the city is delaying the mandate until full FDA approval and allowing for medical and religious belief exemptions. But she said there are questions about employees’ personal medical information security and how the city would handle those granted exemptions — would they have to always wear masks and be regularly tested for COVID-19?
Service Employees International Union 1021, representing 20,000 city workers, said that while it encourages employees to get vaccinated, it opposes a “threatening mandate.” SEIU 1021 San Francisco Regional Vice President Theresa Rutherford said the history of “unethical experimentation” experienced by Black Americans and other people of color have created “real fears” that should be respected.
Sandra L. Rappaport, an employment attorney with the Hanson Bridgett law firm in San Francisco, said employees who don’t want to be vaccinated may have little recourse if their employer requires it.
“I don’t believe this is the first governmental employer to require vaccinations,” Rappaport said. “Certainly public hospitals have required staff to be vaccinated against certain illnesses for some time. Unless an employee has a disability or religious belief that prevents them from being vaccinated, an employer has no obligation to provide accommodation to an employee who doesn’t wish to be vaccinated.”
Employers don’t seem to face much liability risk either for making workers get vaccinated or for an ill employee infecting others, Rappaport said. Workers compensation would cover an employee who suffers treatment costs for a vaccine side effect, and “the likelihood that someone could prove their illness was contracted from a specific city worker who was not vaccinated seems pretty slim,” she said.
But Robbins said even if employers can mandate vaccination, that doesn’t mean they should.
“Part of the reason employers are not jumping on this bandwagon is they have the same sensitivity I do — is it appropriate?” Robbins said. “At what point does an employer have the ability to control a worker’s personal decisions about their own body, even if good for them?”
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