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Development & Transportation

Port Authority stands behind its vaccine mandate as service disruptions ease

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Margaret Sun
/
90.5 WESA

Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman defended the agency’s requirement for all employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in remarks to the agency’s board of directors Friday morning. Last week’s implementation of the mandate caused service disruptions to soar, and has soured Port Authority’s relationship with its employee union, Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

The agency’s decision to create the mandate is rooted in its promise to the community to provide bus and rail service safely and efficiently, Kelleman said.

“We will always defer to safety,” she said. “Two years after COVID started, and [with] the likelihood of another strain facing us, our riders deserve to know that we’re doing everything in our power to keep them safe and preserve service.”

Kelleman said employees, too, deserve to work in a safe environment; COVID killed seven Port Authority workers, three after vaccines became widely available.

“None of us want to lose any more” coworkers, Kelleman said.

Ross Nicotero leads Local 85, and addressed the Port Authority board during a public comment period. While Local 85 encourages its 2,300 members to get vaccinated, “we do not agree that you force it on people,” he said.

Nicotero condemned the mandate, saying that it has harmed the Port Authority’s reason for existence: to get people where they need to go.

“The recent massive job loss, reduction of service and embarrassing black eye suffered by the entire mission is caused by your mandate,” he said. “It was unnecessary and completely avoidable. This was your doing.”

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Since last Friday, Port Authority has held 158 disciplinary hearings for employees who remained unvaccinated as of March 16.

In total, nine people have been fired; eight retired and 78 employees showed proof of either a vaccination or the first shot of a two-dose course and returned to work under a 30-day probationary period, according to the Port Authority. Cases for five people were tabled because they presented new information to support an application for a religious or medical exemption, and 50 people have not shown up, the agency said.

The agency did not immediately respond to a question about what happens to employees who miss their hearing.

Nicotero said the vaccine requirement is galling because it was the only part of the agency’s COVID-19 response in which they decided to “do it alone.”

For two years, Local 85 “worked tirelessly with Port Authority leadership to address the concerns and challenging circumstances of the pandemic,” he said. “At each turn, we achieved solutions, together, to work for everyone, both the company and the local.”

Other transit agencies have agreed to allow unvaccinated employees to provide weekly or semi-weekly negative COVID tests in lieu of vaccination, an arrangement Local 85 has requested of the Port Authority. The union is pursuing action under Pennsylvania labor law.

Nicotero noted that negotiations for a new contract have begun, and that judging from clashes regarding the mandate, everyone could be in for an unpleasant process.

“You need to solve the problems that you created,” Nicotero said. “You can only do that if you … partner with us instead of excluding us and punishing us.”

While nearly 20% of scheduled bus and train trips were out of service last Wednesday, that number has since dropped to just under 9%, said Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph.

He called it encouraging to see “out-of-service dropping as more and more employees return to work.”

However, inconsistent service continues to affect people who rely on transit the most. At the meeting Friday, several people addressed the Port Authority board to ask them to resolve long wait times and uncertainty on the buses that have replaced rail service on the T’s red line.

Those shuttles do not appear on real-time tracking platforms such as the Transit app, and so people can wait for up to an hour for a trip. Pittsburgh City Councilor Anthony Coghill said Port Authority must improve the situation.

“It really uproots the neighborhood,” he said. People are “getting frustrated with the inconsistencies and the long waits.”