Community Transit issues vaccine requirement for employees

It starts with new hires this week, a vaccine or weekly negative test by Oct. 18, and full compliance by Jan. 1.

Ric Ilgenfritz, CEO of Community Transit. (Community Transit)

Ric Ilgenfritz, CEO of Community Transit. (Community Transit)

EVERETT — Starting this week, new Community Transit hires must be vaccinated for COVID-19.

It was the first phase of a rollout from CEO Ric Ilgenfritz, announced publicly during the agency’s board meeting Thursday.

“This was a decision I did not take lightly because there’s a lot of complexity to it,” Ilgenfritz said.

President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine requirement will apply to Community Transit’s contractors, including those who operate its paratransit service, Ilgenfritz said. Issuing a similar mandate across the agency makes a uniform standard.

“It didn’t feel tenable for us to have different standards for different parts of our organization,” he said.

For months, Community Transit’s employee vaccination rate was stuck at 65%. Transit workers have been eligible for the vaccine since March 17. A financial incentive had not spurred a notable bump in vaccinations among the ranks, Ilgenfritz said.

Biden’s target was for 70% of adults in the country to be vaccinated, which was reached in August. A higher rate nationwide, across ages, of at least 80% is considered necessary for “herd immunity” but experts warned the number was unlikely to be reached, according to a story in The New York Times.

In March 2020, Community Transit bus driver Scott Ryan died after contracting COVID-19. He was 41.

That month saw the previous high in positive cases among employees: 10.

In August there were nine positive COVID cases among Community Transit employees and another 23 in September, according to the agency’s self-reported numbers.

“That’s far and away the most cases we’ve had since the start of the pandemic,” Ilgenfritz said.

Of 84 employees who have tested positive, 72 have returned to work, according to Community Transit.

So far this month, there were no positive cases but “several” test results were pending. Community Transit’s infection rise also led the agency to implement “stricter” policies for cleaning and gathering, and to ask employees who can to work from home.

Amalgamated Transit Union 1576, which represents Community Transit drivers, had pushed for greater safety measures, including plastic barriers around drivers. That wasn’t considered feasible, but for months riders only entered through the back doors. Seats near the driver were closed off.

Now, riders board from the front doors but are directed to exit only the rear doors and keep at least 6 feet away from the driver.

A vaccine requirement for Community Transit employees was the next step, starting immediately with new hires. By Oct. 18, workers must provide proof of vaccination or a weekly negative test result at the start of their work week. On Jan. 1, all employees are required to be vaccinated.

The new work requirement includes requests for “reasonable accommodation” for medical need or “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

“Community Transit is committed to a fair and respectful process to review requests for accommodations,” agency spokesperson Monica Spain said in an email. “We have consulted with outside counsel and are implementing a multi-layered review process that we believe is consistent with the review process at similar public and private agencies.”

On Tuesday, Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters warned of the possibility of another wave of COVID-19 infections.

A federal rule requires riders to wear a face covering while aboard transit. Masks are available on Community Transit buses.

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

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