Port Authority experiences delays amid protests

Mandatory vaccine policy sparks backlash as drivers refuse vaccine

Written By Caitlyn Scott, Co-News Editor

On March 11, the Port Authority of Allegheny County announced possible delays of all vehicles due to employee demonstrations against the COVID-19 vaccine mandate, causing concern among students and faculty who commute to campus.

“I feel for the drivers. I feel for everyone,” Professor Emeritus within the School of Communications Helen Fallon said. “Very, very odd situation to be in right now.”

In January 2022, the Port Authority announced that employees would have until March 16 to receive at least one dose of the vaccine or be fully vaccinated to continue working, with failure to do so resulting in disciplinary action or termination.

The employee’s union, known as Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 85, submitted a request for the removal of the mandate, which was denied by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John McVay. As a result, 660 workers were placed on unpaid leave until disciplinary hearings are held. That number has now decreased to 340 workers on leave, as of Friday, March 18.

In response to the drivers placed on leave and mass employee call-offs in defiance of the injunction of the mandate, Port Authority released a statement advising riders to look for alternative methods of transportation to complete their daily commutes, announcing service may be limited for the weeks to come.

“With such a significant portion of its workforce unavailable, the agency will not be able to deliver up to 20% of its scheduled service for the next several weeks. It will not be possible to detail where service outages will occur day-to-day,” Port Authority spokesperson Adam Brandolph said.

Port Authority CEO Katharine Kellemen added that although the vaccine mandate will cause shortages, employees receiving the vaccine will ensure both rider and employee safety on all methods of public transit.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown the need to provide a safe transit environment for riders who rely on our services every day,” Kelleman said. “Enforcing the vaccine requirement is the best way for us to keep our riders, employees and all our families safe. We understand this may leave us temporarily shorthanded, but at the end of the day, this is the right thing to [do].”

On March 18, Brandolph said that over 140 workers were scheduled to return after showing proof that they were fully vaccinated. That left 204 employees still unvaccinated and 136 employees only having received a single dose. Over 90% of Port Authority workers are partially vaccinated against COVID-19.

To compensate for the shortages and delays, the Port Authority also announced that fares from March 15 through March 27 would be free for riders on both Port Authority buses and light rail services. That was later extended on Sunday, March 20 through Sunday, March 27.

As the mandate impacts both light rail and bus schedules, students and faculty have voiced mixed concerns over both their experiences with the transportation service and Port Authority’s decision to continue the mandate.

“I’ve been driving to campus recently because I don’t trust the bus service right now,” junior journalism major Brandon Kurzawski said. “If my 7 a.m. bus doesn’t arrive, I won’t make it to my 8 a.m. class on time. I hate being late to anything, so I don’t want to take that risk. Having to wait longer for a bus would be a huge inconvenience. Any uncertainty does not work well in my life.”

Kurzawski added that if employees were not threatened to be terminated from their position due to not receiving the vaccine, many would not need to worry about an increase in shortages and delays.

“I don’t feel like they should be terminated for not being vaccinated,” Kurzawski said. “Many businesses often have the test-to-stay option, which would be a better idea. Given that there is already a bus driver shortage, terminating employees would just make the matter worse.”

Unlike Kurzawski, Fallon said that she believes it is beneficial for workers to be required to be vaccinated to protect themselves and riders on all methods of transportation.

“I don’t understand what people don’t get about a public health emergency,” Fallon said. “I think when you are a service, that of the public, like the Port Authority bus drivers, there has to be some give and take here.”

Additionally, Fallon took issue with drivers’ reluctance to get the vaccine, questioning their reasons for doing so.

“I’m just not understanding the union’s stance on this, because [this is] a public health emergency,” Fallon said. “And, you know, I think at times, you just have to help give way, but I think both sides have been kind of stubborn on this. But I understand the management side because drivers are in the public space every day. I think I agree with them that the drivers need to protect themselves and the public, as well as their families, and anyone they come in contact with. So I guess I’m just not understanding the reluctance to agree to this mandate. To me, it doesn’t make sense. Now, unless you have a problem and can prove some kind of exemption, then I understand. But that’s where I’m at.”

Upon her commute on the Port Authority bus, Fallon said she has not faced any delays caused by bus shortages.

“I’m only here [on campus] two days a week, and so far, I haven’t had any problem,” Fallon said. “I think everyone needs to plan early. Don’t wait till the last minute to catch a bus.”

Along with Fallon, freshman broadcast production and media management student Brett Powers said he has not noticed any significant delays waiting for a Port Authority bus to complete his commute to campus.

“I have personally not experienced any delays from the Port Authority but I am aware of their staffing issue,” Powers said.

Powers also said that he believes that the mandate on employees has made transportation unnecessarily difficult for those who now must cover unoccupied routes to compensate for less transportation services being offered.

“I think that the forced vaccine mandate is very wrong,” Powers said. It puts many people out of work and makes it harder for the people who have to cover for them.”

Despite mixed opinions regarding these shortages, Kurzawski said he hopes that Point Park would be able to provide some aid to those who may be impacted by these delays.

“It would be nice if the University would temporarily validate parking for students that have to drive down to campus,” Kurzawski said. “I pay $10 to park at the Mon Wharf now versus the $5 I would pay for riding the bus. I’m only on campus 2 days a week this semester, but it would have been $40 a week had this happened in the fall semester.”

According to Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Keith Paylo, students and faculty have not brought this up to administration as an issue, but the university would be prepared to respond.

“The University has not communicated anything to faculty, per my understanding, because we have not been made aware of any commuter students missing classes or being late because of Port Authority delays,” Paylo said. “If students inform us of issues like this, we can then begin to take steps to address it.”

Powers said that he believes that the university should provide students and faculty with alerts of transportation delays to help commuters plan ahead which method of transportation would be beneficial to use to complete their travel to campus.

“I think Point Park should send an alert or email to the commuting students if Port Authority is having a big delay in their buses [and other services],” Powers said.

The Port Authority continues to update riders about the current shortages on their website, their True Time route tracker system and post alerts on their official Twitter.