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Public officials and union leaders spar over Port Authority’s vaccine mandate

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
Port Authority has held nearly 500 employees off work for failure to comply with its COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

Eighteen percent of Port Authority trips were out of service on Wednesday, the first day the agency’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate took effect. As disruptions increase, so do frustrations between public officials and the union that represents more than 2,000 agency workers.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said Thursday that he fully supports Port Authority’s vaccine mandate, despite negative impacts to service.

“We’re not going to negotiate public health,” he said.

Nearly 500 employees continue to be held off from work; among them are 180 bus and light rail operators. Under the new policy, they could all lose their jobs. But Fitzgerald said he’s not worried about how a massive layoff could affect public transit in the county and believes it will be better moving forward.

“We’re going to have employees that care about the public’s health,” he said. “We’ll be getting rid of employees that are anti-vaxxers, that don’t care about protecting the public.”

People may not want a vaccine, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about the public, said Ross Nicotero, president of Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

“We’ve worked for 20 months and done everything to keep this county rolling, now all of a sudden we’re no good,” he said. “We went from essentials to zeros. Heroes to zeros.”

Before the mandate took effect, Nicotero said three-quarters of the workforce was vaccinated.

“Is that a perfect number? Absolutely not, but [the vaccination requirement is] not in our contract. It wasn’t negotiated with us,” he said.

However, Nicotero said there’s ample evidence to show Local 85 is eager to work with Port Authority to address COVID-19 and create a cohesive response: over the last two years, the parties have negotiated 12 policies to supplement the union’s collective bargaining agreement. Nicotero questioned why the vaccine requirement wasn’t handled the same way.

The pandemic decimated Port Authority ridership, the long-term funding picture for public transit in Harrisburg remains unclear, and the agency has been talking about service cuts. Nicotero worries that the vaccine mandate gives Port Authority a convenient way to fire workers without having to follow typical procedures.

“To me, this was just a backhanded slap in the face to reduce the service to the people here,” he said. “Blame it on us like we’re not coming to work, or we’re unsafe, or we’re anti-vax. You know what we are? We’re pro-union and pro-working.” 

Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph dismissed Nicotero’s assertion as a ridiculous conspiracy theory.

“Our job, and our goal, is to grow service, and you can’t do that with fewer employees,” he said. “We believe that public transit is going to be one of the many ways that Pittsburgh and other communities get out of the pandemic, and you can’t do that with fewer employees, either.”

Brandolph said Port Authority officials did not discuss the vaccine mandate with Local 85 because they viewed it as a work rule that did not require negotiation.

“And a judge agreed,” Brandolph said. “That’s exactly what [the union] brought to Common Pleas court and a judge denied the injunction.”

Local 85 also filed a complaint under state labor law, but the adjudication process can take months.

For the employees being held off work, Port Authority will begin disciplinary hearings on Friday, which is also Transit Worker Appreciation Day.