San Jose made a last-minute change to its COVID-19 vaccination policy that gives reluctant employees more time to get the jab before punishments start.
Thursday was the deadline for city employees to be vaccinated, but Mayor Sam Liccardo said workers will be given a one-week grace period to get their first shot before being placed on a one-week unpaid suspension. Employees who had their first dose by Friday, Oct. 1, will be given reasonable time to get their shot before being subject to disciplinary action.
Approximately 92% of the city's 7,067 workers are vaccinated.
"It's good to see a substantial improvement in vaccination rates already within our workforce over the last couple weeks," Liccardo said during a Friday news conference.
San Jose mandated in August that employees must show proof they've had a COVID vaccine or take weekly tests, following the lead of Santa Clara County which made a similar requirement over the summer. This followed a surge in Delta variant infections that forced local jurisdictions to adopt tougher restrictions and aggressive vaccination policies.
Employees who remain unvaccinated will have to test negative twice a week at their own time and expense, but will be allowed to work on a staggered schedule to avoid negative impacts to city services. If employees aren't vaccinated by Dec. 31, they can face disciplinary measures up to termination.
The policy doesn't apply to workers who have religious or medical exemption from getting the vaccine. As of Wednesday, the city has received 349 exemption applications and approved 255. The city did not have an immediate update on these figures as of Friday.
Liccardo would not answer a question about which city department has the lowest vaccination rate. Recently, the most vocal opponents of the city's mandatory policy have been the police and firefighter unions in San Jose. Union officials warned that an inflexible mandate would potentially lead to worker shortages. The San Jose Police Officers Association claimed as many as 140 officers might leave the department over the requirement. Unions in cities outside of San Jose have raised similar complaints about mandatory COVID vaccinations.
Asked whether the city's deadline changed in response to rumblings from the police union, Liccardo told San Jose Spotlight that the update gives employees the time they need to make good decisions.
"We want to apply intermediate sanctions in the hope we can persuade everyone to come along," Liccardo said. "We don't want to race there."
He also noted the San Jose Police Department has increased its vaccination rate from 82 percent to 86 percent,while the fire department is at 92 percent. He added that to date only one worker, a reserve officer, has left SJPD due to the vaccination policy.
Tom Saggau, spokesperson for the San Jose Police Officers Association, sent San Jose Spotlight a statement from the union.
"We recognized the dire consequences of potentially losing a significant number of officers and worked with the city to find a solution that protects both the health and the safety of our members and the residents we serve," the statement says.
George Rutherford, a professor of epidemiology at UC San Francisco, said the city's policy is likely "sufficiently protective for the short term."
"As a longer term solution it's touchier," Rutherford said, adding that city workers deal with members of the public, which may present issues down the road."Vaccinations are hugely important, vaccinations are what's going to get us out of this pandemic. As a society, we've made the choice to mandate vaccination, and I think there have to be consequences for people who refuse to get vaccinated, unless it's for totally legit medical reasons."
Under bargaining agreements, the city must follow a disciplinary procedure for employees who refuse to get vaccinated, Liccardo said. But he said sanctions will ratchet up over time and may include termination if necessary.
"With this frequent battery of testing, while a disciplinary process is happening, we hope more of our employees will continue to get vaccinated," Liccardo said.