Community Transit leaders are sticking with a COVID-19 requirement for employees, despite pleas from current and former workers to end it and re-hire those who left or were fired. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Community Transit leaders are sticking with a COVID-19 requirement for employees, despite pleas from current and former workers to end it and re-hire those who left or were fired. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Despite pleas, Community Transit sticks with vaccine policy

Current and former employees asked the board and CEO to rescind a COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

EVERETT — Community Transit’s board and chief executive officer are sticking with their COVID-19 vaccination requirement, despite recent pleas from current and former employees.

When CEO Ric Ilgenfritz announced the policy last fall, about 66% of the agency’s employees were fully vaccinated. That number was flat for months prior despite cash incentives and paid leave to get the vaccine and for any side effects.

As of this week, over 99% of Community Transit are fully vaccinated, according to spokesperson Monica Spain.

Pandemic precautions, such as wearing masks and distancing, largely have ceased, even as cases again jump.

Several current and former Community Transit employees asked the agency’s leaders to rescind the policy and rehire workers during the board of directors meeting June 2.

Shelly Schweigert was a 2 million-mile driver for the agency for almost three decades, most recently on the Swift Green bus rapid transit line. But she was fired because she did not get vaccinated and was not given an accommodation for her religious exemption.

“We are around unvaccinated people in the environment. Customers can sit on the bus side-by-side regardless of their vaccination status,” Schweigert said. “Hire them back. All employees terminated, hire them back. Start the healing process and hire them back.”

But the agency’s leaders don’t plan to end the requirement.

“We want riders and employees to feel safe using CT services with the knowledge that we’ve done everything we possibly can to protect their health,” spokesperson Monica Spain wrote in an email. “We want employees to know we have prioritized their safety at every turn.”

The pandemic is ongoing and the agency has a responsibility to keep employees and riders safe, Spain said. Vaccination is one of the best ways to decrease severe illness, hospitalizations and deaths, she said. Health experts say the same.

Employees had to be fully vaccinated or have an approved exemption and accommodation by Dec. 31. There were 59 employees who were fired because they did not get an approved accommodation and were not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The agency lost 29 drivers because of the vaccine requirement.

The disease ran rampant through Community Transit employees in January, when there were 69 cases. That number dropped to 15 in February, and rose to 22 in May, according to the agency’s data.

Already short-staffed, the additional absences due to sickness caused unpredictable trip cancellations. In January, Community Transit cut 36 trips, then even more again in March to ensure reliable service.

Sabina Araya, a Community Transit system planning employee for over two years, said she supports drivers and mechanics who were fired or quit. Losing service frequency to light rail at Northgate Station in Seattle disrupts planning work the agency did with Sound Transit, she said. And it affects riders.

She started an online petition to rescind the vaccine policy, rehire employees and restore service. As of Wednesday, it had 51 supporters.

“It is a direct consequence of the mandate,” Araya said. “Rescind the policy, hire back drivers and mechanics, and restore service.”

Sound Transit, which operates light rail and express bus routes in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, requires the vaccine for employees. As of this week, six had been fired, 16 got accommodations and 1,171 were fully vaccinated, spokesperson John Gallagher said.

The city of Everett did not require Everett Transit employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The union representing about 100 drivers, inspectors and maintenance workers added a clause prohibiting the city from doing so in its recently approved collective bargaining agreement.

Some Community Transit board members responded to the public comments last week and signaled support for employees, who also voiced concerns about bus security and misbehaving riders.

“I guess I was struck and very much moved by the fact we had four current or past employees coming up and speaking to the board,” Mukilteo Mayor Joe Marine said. “We are working diligently to try to solve some of those issues.”

Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts said he wanted the agency to hold a talking session so employees know they’re being heard.

“These testimonies are heart-wrenching,” Roberts said. “It’s been a tough patch, a tough season.”

The vaccine policy hasn’t deterred new drivers, Spain said. Rather, the agency is struggling to hire workers the same as other employers, she said.

Community Transit recently began offering a $5,000 hiring bonus. New drivers are eligible for full-time positions once they graduate the training program. Seniority is a factor in schedules.

Community Transit wants to have 352 drivers this year. As of June 1, there were 332 full-time and four part-time drivers. The agency has hired 13, with six graduating to full-time drivers and the rest set to graduate in July.

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

This story has been updated with the latest COVID-19 case numbers for Community Transit employees.

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