Number of unvaccinated city workers still unclear as deadline approaches

At least 80% of Berkeley’s city workers are fully vaccinated, based on limited data released Wednesday.

COVID-19 vaccine site at Fremont High School.
Berkeley requires all of its city workers to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 15. Credit: Amir Aziz

Berkeley officials say 1,350 city employees are fully or partially vaccinated against COVID-19, while another 64 have applied for exemptions from the city’s requirement that all workers get their shots.

But with the deadline for workers to be fully inoculated just days away, city leaders say they are still trying to figure out how many employees remain unvaccinated.

Berkeley adopted a policy in September requiring that all city workers report their vaccination status by Oct. 15, and be fully vaccinated by Monday, Nov. 15. Workers can only forego getting a shot if the city approves their request for an exemption based on “medical necessity” or “sincerely held religious beliefs”; those who are unvaccinated and don’t have an exemption could lose their jobs.

Monday’s deadline will not result in immediate changes at libraries, offices or other city workspaces, spokesman Matthai Chakko said, as officials are still figuring out their plans for handling unvaccinated employees going forward.

Still, the lack of clarity about how many workers remain unvaccinated was frustrating for Andrea Mullarkey, a shop steward for SEIU Local 1021, which represents about 500 city employees.

“We just want to know: how big of an issue are we facing?” Mullarkey said.

Berkeley has some of the nation’s highest vaccination rates among its residents, with 95% of those 12 and older fully vaccinated. Limited data Chakko shared on Wednesday indicates that at least 80% of the city’s workforce is fully vaccinated.

Berkeleyside began asking the city for data on employee vaccination rates more than three weeks ago, soon after the deadline for workers to report their status. On Wednesday, Chakko shared that 1,330 workers were fully vaccinated, while 20 were partially vaccinated; he said the city is still evaluating the 64 requests for exemptions.

Chakko did not say how many employees reported they are unvaccinated, saying that figure is in flux as some workers get their shots. The city also was not able to say how many employees responded to its vaccination survey, according to Chakko — instead, he said he could only provide the number of budgeted positions in city government, 1,660, a figure that includes vacant positions as well as a number of employees who did not report their vaccination status.

“We have been carefully going through every application to ensure that all documentation is accurate,” Chakko wrote in an email. “We take this very seriously and we have sought to minimize chances for error.”

As for what will happen to that undetermined number of unvaccinated employees, the city’s policy states that they will be subject to “discipline, up to and including termination,” but does not spell out how that process would work or how quickly sanctions could begin.

Chakko said officials are “in the decision-making process” for how to handle workers who remain unvaccinated and are not eligible for exemptions. Employees who are granted an exemption would be required to undergo weekly coronavirus testing.

Mullarkey said not knowing what sanctions unvaccinated employees might face creates headaches for everyone, with those workers unsure of when they might lose their jobs and their vaccinated colleagues forced to wonder, “Am I going to have to pick up work unexpectedly? Are we going to have to reduce services?”

When Berkeley joined several other Bay Area cities in instituting a vaccination requirement, Mayor Jesse Arreguín and other supporters said the policy would help push hesitant people to get vaccinated, and make city workplaces safer both for employees and members of the public who visit them. Arreguín’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday about the lack of data on unvaccinated employees.

Some cities that imposed vaccination mandates have found the number of workers who remained unwilling to get a shot proved to be low. In San Jose, which allowed workers to take a one-week unpaid suspension and undergo regular testing in lieu of getting a shot, the Mercury News reported only six employees opted to stay unvaccinated.

In San Francisco, though, enough bus drivers were unvaccinated that Muni had to suspend some transit service because of staffing shortages.

“There are quite a few parts of (Berkeley) where losing two staff members really will impact direct services to the community,” Mullarkey said.

According to Chakko, though, that is not a concern.

“The city does not anticipate any service disruptions due to the vaccine mandate,” he said.

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.