Hit with staff shortages, Allegheny Co. Port Authority turns to free fares for taxed riders

The free fares started Tuesday and will wrap up on Sunday, March 20, officials said

By: - March 17, 2022 10:06 am

By Amanda Waltz

PITTSBURGH — Officials at the Port Authority of Allegheny County have announced that, due to driver shortages caused by demonstrations against a vaccine mandate, they’ll be providing free fares for passengers through Sunday.

The free fares apply to all vehicles, including buses and light rail, the transit agency said in a statement. The move is an acknowledgment of the “challenges riders are facing with staffing shortages related to the agency’s vaccine requirement,” according to a press release. Port Authority operators started giving out the free rides on Tuesday.

The move comes after days of mass call-offs by vehicle operators, described in a press release as an “apparent protest” against the Port Authority’s decision to require all drivers be vaccinated against COVID-19, which went into effect on March 16. Local news outlets report that hundreds of drivers have called off their shifts, leading to a disruption of service and delays for many routes.

Port Authority previously warned that the service disruptions are “expected to continue through the next couple of weeks while employees in violation of the agency’s vaccine policy participate in disciplinary hearings to address their non-compliance of the requirement.”

Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman responded to the call-offs on March 12, saying the union representing the drivers, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85, “had the opportunity to challenge the vaccine requirement in court and lost.”

Kelleman was referring to a decision made on March 10, in which Common Pleas Judge John McVay denied the union request for a “preliminary injunction that would have halted the county’s mandate. According to a TribLive story, the union has filed a complaint against the county on Feb. 18 alleging that the “unilaterally imposed vaccine mandate violates their rights under their collective bargaining agreement.”

“Rather than continuing to fight, ATU Local 85 leadership should encourage its remaining unvaccinated members to get vaccinated and join the over 80% of employees who have done so for the health, safety, and welfare of our entire workforce and the riders we serve,” Kelleman said in a statement. “The people of Allegheny County rely on our services too much for ATU Local 85 to play these games.”

However, ATU Local 85 has vowed to stand in solidarity with Port Authority drivers and will not take disciplinary action against those who refuse to comply with the vaccine mandate. As reported by KDKA and other news outlets, during a press conference on Monday, ATU Local 85 president Ross Nicotero said some of the 2,200 transit employees he represents have “underlying conditions” and cannot get the vaccine, making the mandate unfair, as drivers who call off could be at risk of getting fired.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Monday that the union “wants all employees to be treated the same as more than 40 who have received religious or health exemptions so they don’t have to be vaccinated.” It adds that those members have to test negative several times a week to keep working.

“For the last two years [during the pandemic], our people have worked every day and they told us we’re heroes,” Nicotero said. “Now, people are going to be sent home. I have people calling the office crying that they’re going to have to retire or be fired after 20, 25 years of service.”

Amanda Waltz is news editor at Pittsburgh City Paper, where this story first appeared.

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