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S.F. vaccine mandate gets pushback from unions and Black employees

Nanette Asimov

Jun 25, 2021

San Francisco City Hall on March 15, 2020. A group representing Black city employees issued a scathing response to San Francisco’s order that its workers be vaccinated against the coronavirus, calling the mandate harsh and insensitive and threatening possible legal action.

"San Francisco’s employee unions snapped back against an order that city workers receive a coronavirus vaccination on penalty of firing, calling for a more collaborative approach, while an advocacy group warned that Black workers could be disciplined more often than others under the mandate.

The Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents 20,000 San Francisco employees, called the policy a “threatening mandate” Thursday. SEIU and other unions said the city would have to negotiate it with unions rather than imposing it unilaterally.

The responses came a day after city officials announced that all 35,000 city employees would need to be vaccinated once the Food and Drug Administration fully approves a vaccine. The city said medical and religious exemptions would be allowed, but that employees who refused vaccinations without obtaining an exemption would be subject to discipline including firing.

Any such change in work rules is subject to collective bargaining, said the unions and the advocacy group Black Employees Alliance and Coalition Against Anti-Blackness, which called the city’s policy insensitive to Black workers.

Mawuli Tugbenyoh, chief of policy for the city’s Department of Human Resources, which announced the mandate, agreed Thursday that unions have the right to “work out any of their concerns” through negotiations.

Board of Supervisors President Shamann Walton sounded a sympathetic note to the concerns of the Black employees group, which was founded in 2018 after dozens of Black city workers testified about on-the-job discrimination at a city hearing. Walton said requiring the vaccines under threat of firing “does seem harsh.”

Three COVID-19 vaccines are being administered in the U.S. under emergency authorization, and full FDA approval for at least one is expected within a few months. Under the policy San Francisco officials announced Wednesday, city employees would have 10 weeks after a vaccine is approved to get their shots. Starting Monday, employees would have 30 days to report to the city their current vaccination status, including showing proof of vaccination.

San Francisco would be the first city or county in California, and possibly the U.S., to mandate COVID vaccinations for all government employees.

On Wednesday, Carol Isen, San Francisco’s director of human resources, said the policy was “a decision for the health and safety of our employees” and was necessary to protect “the city as an employer” from “unacceptable risk.”

In an email to Mayor London Breed and the supervisors, the Black employees advocacy group said, “There is something quite disturbing about a government entity requiring employees to undergo medical procedures that would force them to either take the vaccination, release private medical information to be exempted from receiving the vaccine, or be fired from their jobs.”

Co-founder Dante King, director of workforce equity strategies and programs at the city’s Department of Public Health, said the policy must be bargained with labor unions.

“Whenever the city wants to change work conditions, all of the unions have to agree to it,” King said.

An umbrella group representing 28 construction unions said it had concerns about the policy.

“Rather than focus on punishment, we should approach essential public workers with the same education and outreach as we do the public, while being sensitive to those who have reservations,” said Rudy Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council.

He suggested that the state’s model of encouraging, rather than requiring, vaccination is a more “positive and forward-thinking approach (that) should be applied to the heroes that got us through this crisis.”

Shon Buford, president of the San Francisco Firefighters Local 798, told The Chronicle that “while we question the need to threaten discipline or termination, especially as the city approaches herd immunity, we’re consulting with our employment lawyers and working with our labor partners to make sure that any mandate is implemented in a fair manner.”

SEIU Local 1021 said in a statement that “vaccines protect lives. ... However, we do not support a threatening mandate.” The union added that “the new policy overlooks the cultural, religious and health factors that have deterred certain workers from getting the vaccine.”

The Black Employees Alliance and Coalition Against Anti-Blackness said it had received a “barrage of concerns” from Black and other nonwhite employees about the compulsory vaccination policy. It said the policy was “harsh, insensitive, and is anticipated to have disproportionate impacts to the city’s Black employees.”

The group cited two events in history that it said contributed to the reluctance of “many Black people and families” to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

One, known as the Tuskegee study, took place from 1932 to 1972 as researchers funded by the U.S. Public Health Service withheld treatment from Black men with syphilis.

The group also cited decades of compulsory sterilizations of disadvantaged or disabled Black people in the U.S., which the University of Michigan reports continued into the 21st century and affected more than 60,000 people in 32 states.

Walton, the board president, told The Chronicle he sympathizes with the critics.

“I am in contact with medical professionals to understand if the policy is supported by data around health impacts,” Walton said. “My non-medical opinion is that it does seem harsh.”

A spokesperson for Breed referred questions to Tugbenyoh, who said, “We know the vaccine is safe and effective, and we’re focusing on outreach with all of our employees to make sure they have all the information they need about it.”

Nanette Asimov is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @NanetteAsimov"

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