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Frustrated and late: passengers ride out the first day of Port Authority’s vaccine mandate

A Pittsburgh Regional Transit bus fare machine covered in a note reading "free rides."
Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Port Authority will continue to offer free rides through Sunday as the agency and an employee union face off over the policy, and riders see service disruptions.

Port Authority’s vaccine mandate took effect on Wednesday and 180 still-unvaccinated operators for the system’s buses and light rail cars were told not to report to work. There were plenty of buses running their normal routes, but many passengers reported delays and frustration as service disruptions hit the morning rush.

On the inbound side of the Martin Luther King Jr. East Busway, Kaiyah Smith kept checking her phone. Around 8:30 a.m., no bus in sight, Smith shook her head, “I’m already late.”

Smith leaves her house every morning at 8 a.m., gets to the Roslyn Station by 8:09 a.m., and takes the 8:15 a.m. bus to her job as a head teller for Citizens Bank. But when she spoke to a WESA reporter, her bus was already more than 10 minutes late, and there was no way she was going to make it to work on time.

“It’s an inconvenience for the people who don’t have cars and use public transportation to get back and forth to work,” she said. “Everybody’s going through it right now.”

Throughout the day on Wednesday, Port Authority Alerts tweeted out notice after notice of canceled stops and trips, but data to quantify the hit to service was not immediately available. Still, it wasn’t difficult to find riders who were struggling with the disruption.

Alex Ball works for the University of Pittsburgh, and on a bus headed into Oakland he said his regular 8:16 a.m. trip had been canceled over the last couple of days.

“I’m very lucky that my boss and supervisors and everyone at my office is super-supportive and understanding,” he said. “But it’s frustrating.”

When Ball’s P3 bus turned onto Fifth Avenue in Oakland, it was hard to tell that anything was different. Every few minutes another Port Authority bus pulled up to the curb and people poured on and off. But within blocks of the stop were people who reported that their buses hadn’t come, and now they had to figure out what to do.

Kim Squirrel (“Yes, like the little animal”) had the day off, but most mornings she walks from the Hill District to her job as a chef at Carnegie Mellon University, then catches the bus home in the afternoon. She said the recent delays and disruptions haven’t been too inconvenient for her, though her daughter’s commute from McKees Rocks has been repeatedly delayed. But she appreciated that the Port Authority is waiving fares through Sunday.

“I think it’s pretty cool that they’re letting everyone ride for free as a make-up for all the mix-ups,” she said – even if it’s not a long-term solution.

While Squirrel said she didn’t know how people will feel when fares go back into effect next week, for the moment most riders who talked to WESA seemed resigned to delays as the Port Authority and the employee union face off over the vaccine mandate. Some said they support the mandate, while others, like Divine Eyth, feel torn.

Around 9:20 a.m., Eyth had just gotten off work at a Downtown Starbucks, and was waiting for a bus on Smithfield Street. She hasn’t had any trouble with the bus she catches at 4:30 a.m. to open the store, but for the last couple of days the bus to her second job has been late or didn’t show at all.

“There’s a lot of protests against vaccines in general,” she said. “I think like, if they didn’t bargain with the union – my mom used to work [with SEIU] – if they didn’t bargain, then I don’t think it’s very fair to request anything from them.”

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Divine Eyth, 18, works at Starbucks and a nail salon. She said she’s happy to ride for free, but she doesn’t think Port Authority can require vaccines if they didn’t negotiate the policy with the union.

Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph said the agency is responsible for keeping riders and employees safe, and vaccinated workers help do that. If members of Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union don’t want to be vaccinated, he said, “There are other places to work.”

Local 85 officials did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday, but earlier this week president Ross Nicotero said if Port Authority won’t pitch in to find an alternate solution, the agency will lose a lot of good people after a long two years of figuring things out together.

“For 20 months my members have come to work, every day, kept working,” he said.

It’s easy to become entrenched in moral positions, said Laura Chu Wiens, who leads Pittsburghers for Public Transit. But her organization is interested in outcomes.

“We can’t trade service for safety or safety for service,” she said. “We really need both.”

Like Port Authority and Local 85 — which Nicotero said has encouraged its members to get vaccinated — Pittsburghers for Public Transit supports vaccines.

“But it seems more important for us at this point to negotiate a solution that doesn’t result in a mass termination [of employees] and a catastrophic loss of service,” Chu Wiens said.

Port Authority put 480 people on leave on Wednesday, including the 180 operators. If employees are not fully vaccinated, or have one shot of a two-dose course, they are not allowed to work, though they will continue to be paid pending disciplinary hearings. Agency officials have said unvaccinated workers will face a range of consequences up to being fired, but it remains unclear if termination is certain. Brandolph said disciplinary hearings are carried out ona case-by-case basis, and he could not speculate about what the outcomes may be.

Port Authority already had increased job vacancies due to the pandemic, Brandolph confirmed. Many areas of the economy continue to experience a labor shortage, and “it’s not like there are hundreds of people lined up to take positions at Port Authority,” said Chu Wiens.

In lieu of vaccination, Local 85 officials have asked the Port Authority to accept weekly negative tests. Chu Wiens noted that the vehicle operator is just one person on a bus that can hold 60 people, and said officials could work with the union to take other steps to safeguard the public. Port Authority could extend a mask mandate for riders, for example, as well as return to rear-door boarding.

Without such alternatives, she said, everyone loses.

“I really mean everyone,” Chu Wiens said. “Public transit is so critical to our regional economy and for helping to address congestion and air quality, and access to critical amenities and jobs.”

Even with the massive blow to ridership during the pandemic, some 100,000 people rely on Port Authority every day to get where they need to go. But Chu Wiens worries the vaccine standoff will hurt service, which could lead to lower ridership, which could mean further cuts to service in a negative feedback loop.

Maybe the most eloquent voice on that subject was the soft, pre-recorded announcement on a 10:30 a.m. bus which was running late and which hardly anyone boarded.

“Port Authority thanks you for taking public transit,” said the recording, suddenly audible in the largely empty bus.