Riders board a Community Transit Route 116 bus Jan. 6, 2023 in front of Edmonds-Woodway High School in Edmonds, Washington. The agency dropped its requirement for employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 this week. (Ryan Berry / Herald file)

Riders board a Community Transit Route 116 bus Jan. 6, 2023 in front of Edmonds-Woodway High School in Edmonds, Washington. The agency dropped its requirement for employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 this week. (Ryan Berry / Herald file)

Community Transit drops employee COVID vaccine requirement

After a year with it in place and three years after the first known U.S. COVID case, the CEO announced the change.

EVERETT — Community Transit ended its vaccine requirement Monday, over one year since it took effect and three years since COVID-19 gripped the United States.

It could spur the return of dozens of former employees and help restore bus service after cuts in the past year.

Community Transit CEO Ric Ilgenfritz announced the impending decision in an email to employees minutes before the board meeting Thursday. In February he asked administration members to review the agency’s pandemic response, assess further risks and make recommendations, he said. Ending the vaccination requirement was one.

“This is a big change obviously, and it’s a big deal,” he told the board. “It’s been three long years in the COVID-19 pandemic. I think we should all be grateful that our institutions stepped up and gave us the tools to fight it and fight back.”

The move got ahead of a Snohomish County Council resolution encouraging Community Transit to rescind its vaccination policy on the agenda Wednesday. The County Council does not have jurisdiction over the transit agency, where it has representation on its board of directors.

Ilgenfritz first announced the requirement in fall 2021. It rolled out in phases with new hires needing the vaccine and existing employees either getting vaccinated or testing negative weekly in October 2021. All employees needed the vaccine or an approved accommodation by Jan. 1, 2022.

At the time it was announced, about 66% of Community Transit employees were vaccinated. Cash incentives to boost that rate weren’t working, Ilgenfritz said. By June last year, about 99% of employees were vaccinated. About 78% of people statewide are vaccinated against COVID-19, according to state Department of Health data.

Some employees received an exemption from the vaccine requirement but not an accommodation to keep working. The agency’s leaders argued that drivers and mechanics couldn’t distance themselves enough from others to mitigate the risk of catching or spreading COVID-19.

It led to 59 people leaving or losing their jobs at Community Transit, which serves most of Snohomish County. Most were drivers and mechanics.

Those departures came as the agency was already struggling with a labor shortage that was contributing to a drop in bus trip reliability.

Since the requirement was imposed, some employees criticized the decision and consistently asked the CEO and the board to end it.

Shelly Schweigert, a driver at the agency since 1990, recently had her retirement and seniority restored after challenging her termination for not getting the vaccine. She said the agency called her over the weekend with an offer to return to work within two weeks.

“I’m super excited, they already called,” Schweigert said. “Now I’m able to go drive a bus because they rescinded the vaccine requirement.”

She kept in contact with others who lost jobs at Community Transit and is hopeful many choose to return.

Former employees who quit, retired or were not part of a union would have to apply again.

People in a union who were let go at Community Transit because of the policy will be recalled in line with layoff policies, spokesman Martin Munguia wrote in an email. Those former employees will be informed of the change and invited to return to their old positions.

Doing so could help the agency restore service, which has been cut largely because of staffing shortages. Between January and late November last year, the agency hired 53 drivers and six mechanics, but lost 49 drivers or trainees and five mechanics.

Schweigert said she has no reservations about returning to Community Transit and driving a bus, even without a vaccine or a requirement for riders to wear a mask.

“At Community Transit, you have a choice to wear a mask, wear gloves, clean your bus,” she said. “It’s up to the operator. I probably will be making sure my bus is clean and safe to come into.”

Part of the Community Transit COVID-19 response review will keep some practices, such as heightened health screening, isolation, providing masks for passengers and vehicle sanitation.

The vaccination policy will remain on the books for the CEO to implement temporarily if there is an outbreak at a Community Transit property or if case counts rise to justify its use, according to agency documents.

Ben Watanabe: 425-339-3037; bwatanabe@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @benwatanabe.

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