A Community Transit bus during the time passenger entry was limited to the rear doors. Passengers now must enter the front door and pay fares. (Community Transit)

A Community Transit bus during the time passenger entry was limited to the rear doors. Passengers now must enter the front door and pay fares. (Community Transit)

Community Transit drivers: Too soon to open the front doors

The agency gives drivers masks, but a union calls that insufficient and asks for more protections.

EVERETT — Community Transit drivers don’t feel safe after fare collection and front-door boarding resumed last week, according to the union representing them.

Fare collection on all Community Transit vehicles began Wednesday. Swift Blue and Green routes began collecting fares on June 1. Riders have to enter the bus through the front doors to pay. For the three months while fares were suspended, passengers used rear doors, away from drivers.

“We believe that opening the front door is happening too soon, and that our operators will be required to have far too close contact with the public to be deemed safe,” said Kathleen Custer, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1576, which represents drivers. “We have shared with (Community Transit) the serious concerns our members have about opening the front doors.”

In addition to wearing masks, drivers have the option to use plastic face shields, but they aren’t allowed to wear them while driving. That means taking them off and putting them back on for every stop.

“You’re constantly having to touch the face shield,” Custer said.

Custer said the union asked the agency to install Plexiglas barriers for drivers back in March. The agency is testing physical barriers around the driver compartment, spokesperson Nashika Stanbro said in an email Wednesday.

Riders are expected to follow the mandatory statewide face covering order issued by Gov. Jay Inslee, Stanbro said.

Signs on buses will remind customers to wear a face covering and maintain six feet of physical distance from the driver and other riders.

The agency also provides face masks to passengers who enter buses without one.

Drivers are required to wear either a cloth face covering or a KN95 mask when anyone else is on board, Stanbro said.

The agency will provide two KN95 masks per week to any employee who requests one, she said, in addition to a reusable cloth face covering.

“Wearing a KN95/N95 with a face shield exceeds L&I guidelines and wearing a cloth face covering with a face shield meets L&I guidelines, so we encourage coach operators to wear the face shield when passengers board through the front door,” Stanbro said, referring to the state Department of Labor and Industries.

The transit agency also provides employees with gloves and a bottle of hand sanitizer.

“And bulk supply has been acquired,” Stanbro said.

Those precautions aren’t enough to make drivers feel safe, Custer said.

“We’ve been begging (Community Transit) not to reinstate the front door boarding and the fares,” she said.

After a month without any cases, the number of Community Transit employees testing positive for COVID-19 shot up again in June.

The agency reported 10 positive COVID-19 tests in March, one in April and none in May. In June, four employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Custer said the union confirmed those cases are bus drivers.

It’s not just the drivers who feel unsafe. A long-time passenger said she feels Community Transit is putting their bottom line above the safety of their employees.

“Even after the loss of one of their own employees and the very ill 14 other employees,” Community Transit “has decided to put collecting fares (above) the health and safety of their riders, their drivers and our communities,” a woman named Samantha said in an email. She asked that her last name not be used because a family member is a Community Transit driver.

She stopped taking the bus early during the pandemic because other riders ignored social distancing protocol.

“I no longer felt safe riding the bus … I have opted to drive and consider myself very privileged to be able to make that choice,” she said.

The decision to resume fare collection “feels entirely financially motivated,” Samantha said.

As of May, Community Transit had lost nearly $4.2 million in fares, Stanbro said.

But the bulk of the agency’s revenue comes from sales tax, not fares.

Stanbro said Community Transit expects a total revenue loss of $36 million to $49 million in 2020.

Custer said the union continues to ask Community Transit not to reinstate fares or front-door boarding. “We don’t understand the rush to open the front doors,” union local vice president Danielle Julien said. “It’s not a revenue issue.”

As for the Plexiglas shields, Julien said the union has been told it won’t be until at least the end of July before the agency is done testing the first prototype.

As front doors opened last week, Julien and Custer said, they fielded dozens of calls and emails from members who felt unsafe driving their routes.

“It’s going to have to be a personal choice for our members to risk their lives or to risk discipline for not obeying,” Custer said. “It’s a terrible choice to have to make.”

Julia-Grace Sanders: 425-339-3439; jgsanders@heraldnet.com.

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