The Union Democrat
Hetch Hetchy workers seek help
Opposition to COVID-19 vaccine has some facing termination
A half-dozen Hetch Hetchy employees facing termination from their jobs at Moccasin asked the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday to support their claims for religious and medical exemptions from mandated COVID-19 vaccine policies imposed by the City and County of San Francisco, which own the agency providing water to 2.7 million people in the Bay Area.
Three of the five elected Tuolumne County supervisors said they opposed having their board collectively send a letter drafted by District 3 Supervisor Anaiah Kirk to the City and County of San Francisco before the matter was tabled until later Tuesday afternoon.
Kirk made a motion before 5 p.m. to send his letter asking the owners of Hetch Hetchy to acknowledge their employees’ deeply held religious beliefs, but it died for lack of a second from any of the other four supervisors.
Nevertheless, the Hetch Hetchy workers — most of them full-time Tuolumne County residents — had their say before the board in a publicly streamed and televised meeting, which helped shed light locally on a hotlydisputed debate raging nationwide as the coronavirus pandemic has contributed to the deaths of more than 750,000 Americans.
“We need the supervisors and the public to understand that we are about to get fired for simply standing up for our religious beliefs and medical conditions,” Genia Casteel, 52, a Hetch Hetchy senior clerk and Moccasin resident for eight years, said in an interview after she spoke to the Board of Supervisors at 2 S. Green St. in downtown Sonora. “We have just received notification we have to attend Skelly hearings that could lead us to being fired as individuals. I believe at the end of this month, we haven’t been given a date.
“We’re standing up for our rights. If we don’t, where is this going to end? If we just allow them to tell
us how to live our lives, how are we free?”
Casteel, who went to the meeting with her husband, Joseph Casteel, 59, a maintenance supervisor with more than 30 years working for Hetch Hetchy at Moccasin, said she understands about a dozen Hetch Hetchy workers at Moccasin have asked for religious exemptions, about three have asked for medical exemptions, and there are about 20 people altogether who have claimed religious or medical exemptions or tried to do both.
Peter Dean, 49, a Hetch Hetchy regulatory specialist at Moccasin for 18 years, said there are a variety of reasons for each employee claiming religious exemptions and each person has his or her own beliefs.
“My personal belief is I believe that it is an offense against God to put unnatural things in my body,” Dean said in an interview later Tuesday. “Other employees have differing beliefs. That’s my personal belief.”
Addressing medical exemptions from COVID-19 vaccines, Dean said, “I don’t know each individual’s medical history. My understanding is there are employees that have had life-threatening reactions to similar drugs in the past. Hetch Hetchy’s perspective is they must try this new drug and see if it harms them before they will be given an exemption.”
Earlier during the board meeting, Kirk cited parts of a draft letter he has already composed to send to the City and County of San Francisco.
“They are making predetermined decisions,” he said about the owners of Hetch Hetchy. “I never thought as a supervisor I’d be up here fighting for people’s constitutional and religious rights. But I feel like I have a duty to... These folks who were hailed as heroes are now disposable at the drop of a hat.”
Kirk said he was requesting the board to approve and send his letter collectively as a board. If the board would not, Kirk said, he would send the letter himself.
“I don’t think we should dictate to the city of San Francisco,” said County Supervisor David Goldemberg. “I don’t support this coming from the board as a whole. I don’t think this should have been put up here.”
County Supervisor Kathleen Haff told Kirk she applauds his letter, however, “I agree with Supervisor Goldemberg that it’s not our place as a county board to tell another county what to do… I can’t support the board in full signing this letter.”
County Supervisor Jaron Brandon, said he ultimately agreed with Goldemberg and Haff, adding that Kirk’s draft letter was “commenting on policies of another municipality.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Brandon said. “It’s a really heartbreaking situation, but this is more a statement by the board. I don’t think it would have any impact.”
County Supervisor Ryan Campbell, who serves as board chairman, opened public comment without stating his own position.
Dean then spoke to the board from a public podium and said, “I’m in the process of being terminated for not violating my religious beliefs.”
Genia Casteel came to the podium, also identified herself as “an employee that is being terminated for my religious beliefs,” and asked for support from the board.
Ray Longeway, 37, a Hetch Hetchy senior power generator technician, told the board he’s a fifth-generation Tuolumne County resident, regularly attends Calvary Chapel Sonora, has been a Christian his entire adult life, and asked for the board’s support.
Joseph Casteel spoke next and said he’s a second-generation Hetch Hetchy employee and Tuolumne County resident, and he did his catechism and first communion at St. Patrick’s Church in Sonora. He later said he rebaptized as Christian at an evangelical church in Groveland and he currently does Bible studies in Soulsbyville.
“It’s sad to think I’ll lose my career of more than 30 years,” he said. “All I can do is ask the board to consider our position.”
Randy Gerhart, 61, a Hetch Hetchy truck driver for 17 years at Moccasin, told the board his employer was “forcing this on people.
“I hope and pray you guys reconsider,” he said. “As far as I know, 22 exemptions are not being accommodated.”
Glen Brantley, 54, a Hetch Hetchy maintenance-repair worker and truck driver for 22 years at Moccasin, told the board it was “sad to hear you all don’t represent the people who voted you into office.”
Campbell then closed public comment and tabled the matter until later Tuesday afternoon.
Haff later joined Kirk in a hallway outside board chambers to meet with and talk with the Casteels, Dean and his wife, and other Hetch Hetchy workers based at Moccasin. Haff also said Tuesday afternoon she would send her own letter to the City and County of San Francisco, opposing what she said is “clear discrimination and disregard for civil rights.”
Kirk’s draft letter, dated Nov. 9, states in part:
“To the leaders of City and County of San Francisco:
“The City of San Francisco employs several Tuolumne County residents to operate the Hetch Hetchy system which provides water to 2.7 million customers of 26 water agencies in San Francisco, Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.
“In 2020, during COVID, these employees were touted as ‘heroes’ providing essential and critical services to your constituents. On September 9, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order requiring COVID-19 vaccination for all federal employees subject to medical or religious exemption as required by law. ‘San Francisco announced the mandate on June 23, 2021 becoming the first large city in the country to require all of its employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, unless they have a valid religious or medical exemption.’
“On November 1, 2021, several of your heroes in Tuolumne County were notified not to return to work and were given until November 5th to get vaccinated or ‘you will be subject to separation from City employment.’ With a workforce of 35,000 employees of which 836 (2.4%) are asking for medical and religious exceptions, San Francisco has a 97.6% vaccination rate among its employees which is well above the percentage needed for herd immunity within an organization.”
Dean later said he found it contradictory that the City and County of San Francisco has accommodated all employees for the last year and a half, and now their position is they cannot accommodate any employees who are unvaccinated.
“We’re being discriminated against and coerced to violate our beliefs,” Dean said. “It makes no sense that hospitals can accommodate their employees and most of us at Hetch Hetchy have no contact with the general public whatsoever. In my case I can perform all my job duties without ever coming within six feet of any other person.”
Genia Casteel added that she and her coworkers claiming religious exemptions have deeply held religious beliefs.
“Our relationship with God tells us we are to rely on him and his design, which is our natural immunities,” she said. “For myself and my husband, vaccinations that are made and tested using cell lines derived from fetal tissue harvested from abortions, it’s an absolute no. It’s against our religious beliefs. The hard part is having to prove our religious beliefs and then having our employer tell us we haven’t substantiated our beliefs, that we cannot prove to them that this is a seriously held religious belief.”
Genia Casteel estimated Hetch Hetchy employs about 300 people at Moccasin and their pay ranges from $50,000 to $250,000 annually. A group of 16 employees who are fighting for religious and medical exemptions from COVID-19 vaccines earn an average of $125,000 annually.
Eighty-five percent of the Hetch Hetchy System’s water comes from Sierra Nevada snowmelt captured in the Tuolumne River watershed and stored in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite National Park.
As of Tuesday, COVID-19 had contributed to the deaths of at least 134 individuals in Tuolumne County and at least 85 deaths in Calaveras County. At least 61 of Tuolumne County’s COVID-19 deaths — more than 45% — have occurred since Aug. 1.
A recent federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study in 13 states showed individuals who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 account for more than 90% of new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.