By MICHAEL WHITNEY
Published February 22, 2023
Transit to modify services March 19 to
Separately, the agency's employee vaccine mandate may change soon
adjust to driver deficit
Post-press update: A discussion at the County Council about Community Transit's vaccine mandate has been scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 28. A line from the print version of the story stating an action item is Feb. 21 has been removed from the story.
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Community Transit is pulling back some services March 19 to prevent last-minute cancellations.
The agency increased its service hours but now is re-adjusting to maintain uninterrupted service because it is short on drivers.
Certain weekday trips will be suspended on nine routes: Routes 101, 105, 115, 116, 119, 196, 201, 202 and 412, says a card posted on buses.
Locally, 101 gets people from Mariner Park and Ride to the transit center in Shoreline and 115 takes people from the Park and Ride at McCollum Park to the same center. Route 116 takes people from the Silver Firs area to Edmonds and Route 412 is Silver Firs to Seattle.
Finer details are expected to be posted at www.communitytransit.org/servicechange on Feb. 27.
Too few drivers is causing service interruptions and dropped trips. On Feb. 14, there were four trips listed as canceled, for example. An agency spokeswoman said Community Transit has been "consistently delivering more than 98% of scheduled trips."
CT's vaccine mandate effects and its future
An agency-wide coronavirus vaccine mandate issued by Community Transit management is tied to an initial loss of drivers. Full coronavirus vaccination became a general condition of employment Jan. 1, 2022.
Community Transit's CEO announced the mandate in late September 2021 amid a spike in virus infection cases among drivers.
As of Feb. 14, Community Transit had no plans to end its employee vaccine mandate, agency spokeswoman Monica Spain said. However, its understood at the recent February Community Transit board meeting, CEO Ric Ilgenfritz signalled the agency will look again at these policies.
The mandate sparked a notable driver turnover.
Fifty-six employees were granted either religious or medical exemptions, while 14 left because of the mandate, says a December 2021 internal memo from Ilgenfritz that is shared online.
While 56 employees had their exemptions approved, 51 were terminated before New Year's Day 2022. The agency wasn't able to give employees accommodations to continue working, Spain said.
Details on how many were hired back were not available by the Tribune's early press time last week.
The agency has 323 full time bus drivers as of Feb. 15.
It came at a time when fluctuations continue during a national bus driver shortage.
The agency is recruiting heavily and put up $5,000 hiring sign-on bonuses. Over 2022, Community Transit hired 75 but lost 43 to attrition and 19 others were promoted within the agency, Spain said. "We lose about five drivers on average a month to retirement or changing jobs," Spain said.
Shelly Schweigert, who the agency hired in 1992, was among the drivers terminated over not being vaccinated. “I don’t understand why we were filling out these (exemption) forms when in the end they say they can’t give accommodation because you’re unvaccinated,” the Arlington driver said.
After letting go of unvaccinated employees, within 60 days later, though, the agency exempted its paratransit and double-decker bus drivers from the mandate. One of the unvaccinated drivers terminated found re-employment as a double-decker bus driver, Schweigert said.
Her story wasn’t through, though.
Schweigert is happy she was able to get her termination reversed without being vaccinated.
She said she believes she’s the only one, and she had to go through multiple steps to get it. She’s being temporarily protected through HELSA, the state’s Health Emergency Labor Standards Act, which lets high-risk workers and frontline workers keep their job if accommodations can’t be made. This special rule expires May 11 when the national coronavirus public health emergency ends.
Until then, Schweigert won’t be driving buses, though: HELSA protects one’s job as long as the employee shelters at home or is accommodated with a work-at-home job.
Today, she is an unpaid employee, but her employment status was reinstated at her original job seniority for her retirement benefits.
If Community Transit keeps its vaccine mandate, she won’t have a job after the HELSA protections expire. She won’t vaccinate against COVID-19 because the vaccine goes against what she heard through her church, she said.
Schweigert said many others had to start their lives over after being terminated. Some didn’t have money to pay their mortgages.
Separately, Everett Transit’s union, ATU 883, stipulated having no vaccine mandate when their contract went for renewal. City administration didn’t fight it, ATU 883’s president Steve Oss said last week.
Some other public transit agencies in the area didn’t establish vaccination mandates.
Community Transit’s driver’s union is a different local unit of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU).
Hiring incentives have been working gradually
If the agency’s plan to increase service hours in 2024 is happening, it will need many more drivers: Approximately 130 more overall, Spain said.
With the fluctuation in the labor market, over 2022 the agency had a net gain of 14 drivers.
“Yes, we have had a very good response to the hiring incentives. We have seen a significant increase in the number of applicants,” Spain said by email.
The agency has a $5,000 sign-on bonus.
“We have had a very good response to the hiring incentives,” Spain said by email. “We have seen a significant increase in the number of applicants. Driving a bus requires that the candidates pass through a few processes. These include a good driving record for three years. Another is the federal requirements around drug and alcohol as well as medical requirements. The candidates also need to get a CDL (Commercial Drivers’ License) permit. We help in this area.”
Calling all Snohomians
Who’s the oldest Snohomish Panther still around? Maybe it’s your relative? Maybe it’s you? The Tribune wants to find out. Tell us who you think it is: write to P.O. Box 499, Snohomish, WA 98291, email to firstname.lastname@example.org
or call 360-568-4121.
We're still working on this, but watch for an upcoming Tribune to
see some recognitions.
Check out our online publications!