Vaccine plan for Oakland workers irks unions, who say they were left out
on September 27, 2021
Oakland’s labor unions say they should have been involved in a draft mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy that would apply to the city’s 4,500 or so employees as a condition of employment.
“Unions aren’t against vaccines at all,” said Elizabeth Ortega, executive director of the Alameda Labor Council. “But we do want to stay at the table.”
Ortega said that the 135 unions that ALC represents received notice of the mandate only a few hours before the draft was released. She said unions should have been involved in crafting the proposal’s language, timeline, and implementation, before it was released to the public.
Almost all city employees are unionized, according to Ortega and city spokesperson Karen Boyd.
The draft policy, released on Aug. 26, would require police officers, firefighters, council members, librarians, and all other employees to report their vaccination status or provide a valid exemption by Nov. 1. The policy would allow exemptions for medical reasons or “sincerely held religious beliefs.” Exempt employees would be subject to frequent testing.
The mandate aligns with guidance from the Alameda County Public Health Department, which reported that, as of this weekend, the average daily rate of COVID-19 cases among unvaccinated individuals in the county was 16.1 per 100,000 people, compared with 6.5 for vaccinated people. Boyd said that there have been no significant outbreaks among city employees. But city administrators note vaccines provide a safe workplace for employees and their families.
“As public servants, it is essential that we demonstrate by example the behaviors we would hope for our community to abide by as well,” said councilmember Treva Reid, who represents District 7.
Many employees support the mandate. Brendan Moriarty, a real property asset manager with the city, has two young children who are not eligible for the vaccine. To protect them, he said he would not return to work until all of his co-workers were vaccinated.
In surveying its more than 2,000 members who work for Oakland, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 found they mostly were not opposed to a mandate but bothered by not being consulted about the plan first.
“We look forward to ongoing discussions about how it’s going to play out and ensuring that we’re at the table when those discussions are happening from beginning to end,” Ortega said. “Unions are pro-voice at the table.”
In a citywide employee email, administrators spelled out the proposed policy, saying “vaccination will be required as a condition of employment. There’s no way to sugar-coat it: that means that failure to show proof of vaccination or have an approved exemption by November 29, 2021 will result in termination of employment.”
In June, San Francisco mandated its employees to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 29. In response, workers protested outside City Hall, and the Human Resources Department received hundreds of letters saying that the policy infringed on people’s rights. In August, a union representing San Francisco sheriff’s deputies said many deputies and firefighters may resign.
Boyd said Oakland has not had pushback from employees.
The Oakland Police Department, Police Officers Association and International Association of Firefighters Local 55 did not return calls and emails for comment, and the Fire Department declined a request for comment.
SEIU said that when an employer changes working conditions, it is required to meet and confer with the union, which wasn’t done in this case.
But Boyd said in an email that, “All the City Unions have been engaged and, for the most part, are supportive of the policy,” adding that their input will be reflected in the final version.
She noted the policy has not been adopted yet because the city expects to work with the unions to improve it.
Felipe Cuevas, a heavy equipment mechanic with the city and SEIU’s Oakland chapter president, said the union is working with the city to ensure the health and safety of the members, while also protecting their rights. This involves ensuring workers are able to meet the vaccination deadline, apply for an exemption, and earn up to two hours of pay for receiving each shot, which the policy promises.
Cities and school districts throughout the state are considering vaccine mandates to address the more contagious delta variant of the coronavirus that is keeping case counts high in many places. Last week, Oakland Unified School District voted to mandate vaccines for students ages 12 and older. And the union representing West Contra Costa Unified teachers filed a workplace safety complaint against the district, citing lax COVID-19 protocols. Teachers there favor a vaccine. But in both districts, opinions vary widely among parents.
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