A Swift Blue Line bus idles Wednesday at the G Bay at Everett Station. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A Swift Blue Line bus idles Wednesday at the G Bay at Everett Station. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

COVID cases prompt Community Transit to cut 36 bus trips

In a week, the number of employees who tested positive grew from 39 to 62. Absences and vacant positions have strained staff.

EVERETT — COVID-19 again has struck transit service in Snohomish County, leading Community Transit to temporarily cancel 36 daily trips through mid-March and add up to a week of sick leave for employees.

Absences and vacant positions after Community Transit’s Dec. 31 deadline for full vaccination against the coronavirus led to weekday ride cuts for more predictable service. Adjustments to the Swift Blue and Green lines and routes 101, 109, 112, 115, 119 and 202 took effect Monday and are set through March 18. Dial A Ride Transit (DART), the agency’s para-transit service, was not affected.

Thirty-nine employees self-reported testing positive as of Jan. 19. By Tuesday it had grown to 62 across the agency’s departments, though a union representative said the transportation department accounts for most of the cases.

“We are experiencing both a number of employee absences and a number of vacant positions,” Community Transit spokesperson Monica Spain said in an email. “Combined, these factors are making it difficult to operate all scheduled trips.”

The vaccine requirement prompted 61 employees, including 29 drivers, to leave, Spain said.

Community Transit’s budget this year planned for 400 drivers, who generally are over-scheduled to cover absences. There were 355 employed as of this week, and the agency is seeking applicants.

But the budget wasn’t able to account for this month’s surge in employees calling out sick.

The union warned Community Transit’s leaders the vaccine requirement would put jobs in jeopardy.

“It’s just been awful,” said Kathleen Custer, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 1576, which represents hundreds of Community Transit employees.

Early in the pandemic, Community Transit agreed to notify the union leadership about positive test results among its members. She said the majority of positive tests are from drivers and maintenance employees.

“We’re getting them every day,” Custer said. “It’s been a rough go for sure.”

ATU 1576 negotiated for more sick leave because of rising case counts, Custer said.

Employees now have up to 40 hours of additional COVID-19 leave, on top of previously guaranteed paid time off. Spain said the agency didn’t have an estimate on how much would be spent on that, but staff believe the adopted budget can cover the costs.

Custer and union leaders have asked for plastic barriers between drivers and passengers since the pandemic’s start. It would help enforce distancing or at least provide protection from direct exposure if someone’s boarding or near the driver, Custer said.

ATU 1576 also wants better mask enforcement by Community Transit supervisors and security contracted with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. Masks are required on public transit per a federal order through March 18.

“Everyone has become very lax now, especially since the vaccine is out there,” Custer said of mask adherence. “All the other administrative staff get to work from home. Bus drivers don’t get to work from home.”

Community Transit has reduced its quarantine and isolation policy to five days, in line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, for employees experiencing symptoms and testing positive.

Community Transit’s Swift Blue Line lost four southbound trips and three northbound trips through March 18 because of employee absences and vacancies. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Community Transit’s Swift Blue Line lost four southbound trips and three northbound trips through March 18 because of employee absences and vacancies. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

It also requires employees to notify the human resources department when they test positive and provide documentation of future COVID-19 vaccine shots. Close contacts of employees who have symptoms are required to take a test and stay home until the company clears them to return to work.

That information is kept confidential, according to agency documents.

All employees are required to wear a KN95 mask when on Community Transit property and vehicles through the end of January.

Most contractors on Community Transit property, such as those who do cleaning, repair or marketing work, also will be subject to the vaccination requirement starting Feb. 15.

A similar rule will be in place then for most visitors.

Contract companies First Transit and Transdev, the para-transit provider for Community Transit, aren’t subject to the vaccine requirement. They are, however, subject to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. But the federal agency’s vaccine requirement was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court and withdrawn Tuesday by OSHA.

“We do work with all contractors to ensure they are following public health guidelines related to masks and PPE, cleaning and disinfecting, social distancing and keeping employees home if they are sick,” Spain said.

Staff considered overall route frequency to choose which trips to temporarily cut, Spain said. They also avoided first and last trips, as well as consecutive trips.

“We also consider a smaller number of adjustments across the system vs. a majority of adjustments on one or two routes — so that we are not disproportionately impacting riders of any one route,” Spain said.

Everett Transit has not been affected similarly, though ridership on route 70, between Boeing and Mukilteo, was so low that the city-run agency suspended service indefinitely on Jan. 3. No other changes were being considered, a city spokesperson said.

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

Suspended Community Transit trips

• Swift Blue Line southbound from Everett Station at 1:10, 3:30, 5:50 and 8 p.m., and northbound from Aurora Village Transit Center at 2:20, 4:40 and 7 p.m.;

• Swift Green Line southbound from Seaway Transit Center at 6:10, 7:50, 9:10, 9:40, , 10:50, 11:20 a.m., 12:30 and 2:20 p.m., and northbound from Canyon Park Park and Ride at 7, 8:50, 10, 10:30, 11:40 a.m., 12:20, 1:30 and 3:20 p.m.;

• Route 101 southbound from Mariner Park and Ride at 2:22 and 4:28 p.m.;

• Route 109 southbound from Lake Stevens Transit Center at 1:07, 3:09 and 6:06 p.m., and northbound from Ash Way Park and Ride at 12:21, 2:01 and 4:19 p.m.

• Route 112 northbound from Mountlake Terrace Transit Center at 3:29 p.m.

• Route 115 northbound from Aurora Village Transit Center at 5:24 p.m.

• Route 119 southbound from Ash Way at 10:40 a.m. and northbound from Mountlake Terrace Transit Center at 11:28 a.m.

• Route 202 northbound from Lynnwood Transit Center at 7:18 p.m.

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