Starting Jan. 1, all Community Transit employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. (Lizz Giordano / Herald file)

Starting Jan. 1, all Community Transit employees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. (Lizz Giordano / Herald file)

Community Transit vaccine holdouts face a ticking clock

Dozens of workers at Snohomish County’s public transit agency declined a COVID vaccine, in spite of a Jan. 1 deadline.

EVERETT — After almost eight years, Cody Slagg’s days as a Community Transit mechanic are ending.

He’s one of 59 employees as of Thursday who are not fully vaccinated, a condition of employment by Dec. 31. After that, employees without an approved exemption and accommodation lose their jobs.

It has been a hard fate to accept for Slagg, who praised his career as one of the best in the state for diesel mechanics.

“I went from a hero at the beginning of this year because I was doing work to keep transit running for the public … (to now) I’m too big of a risk to myself and others and no longer good enough to keep the transit running,” Slagg said.

Community Transit CEO Ric Ilgenfritz used emergency authority granted by the board in March 2020 to make the new policy. He told employees Sept. 28.

Since it took effect Oct. 18, employees show a human resources employee their Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination card one time, or take a weekly COVID-19 test. Copies or photos of the card aren’t kept, Ilgenfritz said.

When Ilgenfritz announced the requirement, 66% of workers were vaccinated. Prior to that, the public transit agency for most of Snohomish County used federal coronavirus relief funds as a financial incentive that increased with the vaccination rate. But it didn’t yield the results he and the board of directors wanted.

Nothing would convince Slagg to get the vaccine, he said.

“You can’t pay somebody to go against their personally deeply held religious beliefs,” Slagg said.

A spike of 23 infections among employees in September, and a stall in the vaccination rate, compelled Ilgenfritz to make the requirement.

“The reason I decided to go here is to protect the health and safety of our employees and our customers,” he told The Daily Herald. “I want our riders to know that every Community Transit employee who has come into contact with that (bus) has been vaccinated.”

Throughout the pandemic, 105 employees have tested positive and 103 have returned to work. Community Transit driver Scott Ryan died in March 2020 after contracting COVID-19. He was 41.

Since the mandate was announced, another 177 employees provided proof of vaccination, and the agency’s vaccination rate grew to 92.2%, according to the agency’s data.

By Jan. 1, all employees must be fully vaccinated.

As of Dec. 21, 14 employees had quit because of the requirement.

Of the employees’ exemption requests, 59 were religious and five were medical. Most exemptions were granted, but only five accommodations were given to employees whose work can be done without interacting with co-workers or the public, Ilgenfritz said.

Bus drivers were over half of the remaining unvaccinated employees. They can’t do their jobs remotely.

That leaves at least four dozen employees facing a ticking clock to get vaccinated or lose their jobs at Community Transit.

Slagg, a journeyman mechanic who “fixes every part of the bus,” is among them. He applied for a religious exemption because he doesn’t want to take a vaccine that may include fetal cell line derived from two abortions in the 1970s and 1980s.

Only the Johnson & Johnson vaccine used a fetal cell line in its production, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. There are no fetal cells in the final products, Richard K. Zimmerman wrote in a National Institutes of Health article in June.

Pope Francis received the Pfizer vaccine in January and has urged people to get vaccinated.

Slagg also has qualms about mRNA vaccines, such as the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech doses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says those vaccines are safe and “do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way.”

Community Transit granted his exemption, but not an accommodation. A supervisor noted in an accommodation evaluation that the job “requires close interaction with crew members.”

“I was hoping they could come up with something, since I work in an 18-bay shop,” Slagg said. “My work doesn’t require me to be within six feet of people.”

Slagg contracted COVID-19 this year. He isolated for 11 days and returned to work. His blood tested for antibodies and that should suffice, he said.

The CDC recommends people who have contracted COVID-19 to also get a vaccine.

Community Transit Board Chairman Kim Daughtry, a Lake Stevens City Council member, had hoped weekly testing could work in lieu of vaccination. But some people who have COVID-19 don’t exhibit symptoms and can spread the disease without knowing they’re putting people at risk, he said.

Slagg disagrees with that argument because the vaccines can decrease the severity of symptoms compared to unvaccinated people. That, he said, could make the vaccinated a higher risk for unknowningly spreading it.

Daughtry also had concerns about using public money for testing.

“We think that this is the best route to go right now,” he said. “We have our misgivings about it but have decided that this policy needs to stay in place for now.”

Community Transit is staying the course with its vaccination policy as transportation companies suspend theirs, and as challenges to the federal mandate move through federal courts.

Earlier this month a federal judge in Georgia issued a nationwide injunction against a vaccine requirement for federal contractors.

Shortly after, Amtrak and Boeing suspended enforcement of the federal vaccine requirement.

But last week the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati reinstated a federal vaccine requirement that had been blocked by the injunction.

At the same time, the omicron variant is emerging more often and the delta variant remains prevalent.

Ilgenfritz was hopeful that with time left before the Dec. 31 deadline, some of the remaining unvaccinated employees would change their minds. But if they don’t, service shouldn’t be affected, he said.

Those who do so now must use any paid leave they have to cover the time they would not be able to work until they’re fully vaccinated. For two-dose vaccinations, the first and second shots are supposed to be within 21 or 28 days for Pfizer and Moderna, respectively.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1576, which represents drivers, negotiated for some cushion for its members fired for not being vaccinated. They won’t lose their seniority if they get vaccinated within three years, and Community Transit agreed to not contest unemployment benefit claims.

That doesn’t extend to Slagg and mechanics represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

He doesn’t have a new job yet but has submitted applications.

“I will survive,” Slagg said.

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

Free rides

Community Transit provides free bus rides to people getting vaccinated, and a drive-thru clinic is available by appointment at the Ash Way Park and Ride near Lynnwood on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

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