In Long Beach, dockworkers are now classified as ‘food workers’ so they can get COVID-19 vaccine

Long Beach has changed how it categorizes dockworkers to give them earlier access to the COVID-19 vaccine, city officials confirmed Monday.

The Long Beach Health Department has already allowed them to book roughly 1,000 appointments for the vaccine, putting them in a rare class of professions like teachers, firefighters and health care workers with access to the shots.

According to the state’s prioritization schedule, dockworkers don’t appear to be eligible; they are specifically named under the “transportation and logistics,” and no eligibility date has been set for this group and many others as supplies of the vaccine remain scarce.

Long Beach, however, got around that by classifying dockworkers at the local seaports as “food workers,” officials said Monday. Food workers, including grocery clerks and farm laborers, became eligible under state criteria about a month ago—at the same time as teachers.

Dockworkers weren’t originally included in that group, but local and statewide politicians have lobbied publicly to move them up in the schedule, and they appear to have succeeded. The California Department of Public Health sent a letter to the city health department on Feb. 18 allowing port workers to be vaccinated, as long as the workers are involved in the delivery of veterinary drugs, any “horticultural commodity for human consumption,” or medicines and chemicals used in the food industry.

“The state sets guidelines and those guidelines can be tweaked by local health departments to reflect local priorities,” Darrel Ng, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, said in an emailed statement on Monday.

It’s unclear whether the city is opening vaccinations to all dockworkers, or just those who meet that specific criteria. Union officials for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, however, have posted public notices on their websites for members to sign up for appointments.

A written statement from ILWU Coast Committeeman Frank Ponce De Leon said only that the union “continues to encourage our workforce to sign-up for the vaccines at both County and City sites.”

Los Angeles County, however, is not allowing dockworkers to be vaccinated yet. It’s not clear whether any other health jurisdiction in the state is changing the classification of dockworkers, either.

In the county jurisdiction, many groups, including educators and food workers, will have to wait at least until March 1 as the county public health department makes its way through a backlog of appointments for seniors and other eligible groups.

Long Beach began releasing appointments for dockworkers more than a week ago, on Feb. 12—a development that has not been mentioned at city media briefings held in the past two weeks in spite of much attention paid to the city’s decision to vaccinate elementary school teachers at a faster pace than other health agencies.

Mayor Robert Garcia, who has been the public face of the city’s vaccination effort, said word of dockworkers getting appointments has been “out there,” adding that getting everyone vaccinated is the city’s focus. He said he’s confident there will be enough appointments for all food workers, and that many grocery store clerks and others have received the vaccine in addition to dockworkers.

The city has not released for several weeks specific numbers on how many people in each eligible group have received first doses of the vaccine. As of Feb. 2, however, only about 800 food workers had been vaccinated along with 6,400 educators, 2,600 emergency response workers, 3,200 health care workers and 10,600 people over the age of 65.

Last week, Garcia said the city has administered a total of about 55,000 first shots along with about 25,000 second shots.

At an event Monday at the Long Beach Convention Center showcasing a visit from Gov. Gavin Newsom, Supervisor Janice Hahn praised Garcia and the city for vaccinating myriad groups, including health workers, educators, seniors and “thank goodness, dockworkers,” she said.

Hahn, along with Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, and Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, have been publicly pushing to get port workers inoculated to protect the supply chain.

A spokesman for the Port of Long Beach, Lee Peterson, said Monday it was his understanding the city and ILWU worked out the details, adding that port officials were pleased at the development.

Officials with the ILWU, based in San Francisco, could not be reached for an interview. De Leon of the ILWU Coast Committee said in a statement dockworkers are now eligible because they are among those who are at high risk for COVID-19.

“Longshore workers can’t move these critical, pandemic-fighting supplies from the safety of a home office,” the statement said. “We work in close quarters lashing containers side-by-side with a partner, pulling slings while discharging breakbulk cargo, riding shuttle buses between terminals and working together in the hold of a ship.”

A union official did email the latest statistics of COVID-19 infections at the twin port complex: Over the past year, through Feb. 12, 1,208 port workers have tested positive for COVID-19, and 13 workers have died of the virus.

Port officials have said that the backlog of ships waiting at anchor outside the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors is a direct result of a worker shortage due to COVID-19.

“We are told 1,800 workers are not going on the job due to COVID right now,” Eugene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said in January. “That can (include) those who are isolating through contact tracing or awaiting test results. Or maybe (those who) fear … going on the job when a lot of people are sick.”

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Melissa has been a journalist for over two decades, starting her career as a reporter covering health and religion and moving into local news. She has worked as an editor for eight years, including seven years at the Press Telegram before joining the Long Beach Post in June 2018. She also serves as a part-time lecturer at Cal State Long Beach where she teaches multimedia journalism and writing.
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