Port Authority fired four people over vaccine mandate and disciplinary hearings continue this week
Dozens of Port Authority employees are facing disciplinary hearings each day this week as implementation of the agency’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate continues to affect bus and rail service. Port Authority conducted 38 disciplinary hearings last Friday, and fired four employees for failing to meet the mandate.
“The goal here is not to terminate employees,” said Adam Brandolph, Port Authority spokesperson. “The goal is to give them opportunities to bring them into compliance with the policy.”
In addition to the four who were fired, six employees chose to retire. Twenty-eight people provided proof of a first vaccine dose and returned to work under probation: they have to receive the second shot within 30 days.
If an employee expresses a willingness to get vaccinated during a hearing, they have “five days to go get their first shot,” Brandolph said.
By the end of last week, 340 people remained off work with pay as Port Authority scheduled and conducted disciplinary hearings.
Hearings are held in person at locations through the system, and conducted under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement between Port Authority and Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Under those procedures, an employee’s on-location manager and a member of the employee relations staff — essentially human resources — represents the company, and employees are joined by a representative of the union.
The hearings regarding the mandate are no different than “if they were having a hearing for breaking a traffic law or an operational rule or having an accident that is believed to have been their error,” Brandolph said.
Officials from Local 85 did not respond to requests for comment.
Brandolph said the agency tells an employee why the hearing is being held and what discipline is being considered, then the employee and union representative have an opportunity to offer a defense, and argue for different consequences. After deliberation, the agency officials provide an oral result, “usually with a written report following.”
If an employee presents “additional information to support a claimed medical or religious exemption,” Brandolph said, then the hearing can be tabled and continued “subject to review of the new information.”
The agency says employees have filed 320 requests for exemptions. Most were for religious reasons, but of 279 religious exemptions requested, only 22 were granted. Of the 41 medical exemptions sought, 8 were granted and an additional 11 were granted temporarily.
The decision about whether to grant an exemption depended in part on whether the agency decided it could accommodate an employee given the nature of their job, Brandolph said. The agency would have more leeway with an IT staffer who can work from home, for example, than it does with a driver “who is around the public and around their coworkers on a regular basis,” he said.
The four terminations were effective immediately, but each person can appeal through the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.
Brandolph did not yet have updated numbers about how much service has been impacted by the mandate. But anecdotal reports suggest that already-crowded buses are passing up would-be riders. When asked if implementation of the agency’s mandate was creating a scenario it was intended to avoid — the transmission of COVID-19 — Brandolph said the agency cannot require the public to get vaccinated, but it can require it of its employees.
“We can sleep easy at night knowing that our employees are not going to get sick and die, and that there’s less of a chance of transmitting [COVID-19] to the general public.”