Pittsburgh Regional Transit is lifting its COVID-19 vaccine mandate at the end of the month and will allow 84 union members fired last year — including 43 operators — to return to work if they want to.
PRT spokesman Adam Brandolph said he couldn’t answer any questions about the agreement with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 85 that ends the mandate on Thursday. The agency ordered that all employees be vaccinated by Feb. 1, 2022, after seven employees had died from the virus, and 84 who refused were suspended and fired after a series of disciplinary hearings.
The union, which has been challenging the dismissals through grievances since they occurred in spring 2022, couldn’t be reached for comment on the return-to-work agreement. The union will have membership meetings at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Thursday to tell members the conditions of returning, such as whether they have to take a test or will retain their seniority, according to its website.
“Over the next week or so, all employees who were terminated under PRT’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccine policy will be receiving a letter from PRT offering reinstatement to employment,” Ross Nicotero, the local’s president and business agent, said in a letter posted on the union website.
Brandolph said reduced occurrences of the disease led to the agency’s decision.
“Rates have continued to go down, nationally and at PRT,” Brandolph said. “We felt as though this was the right time with the federal government and Allegheny County already lifting mandates.”
The county, which had implemented a similar vaccination requirement in September 2021 and fired about 100 employees who refused, ended its requirement May 18. Only a few have returned to work, spokeswoman Amie Downs said Tuesday.
Ralph Williams, head of the Allegheny County Transit Council, said he is “very happy” with the decision to allow PRT employees to return to work. Williams has been lobbying PRT’s board of directors at their monthly meetings for more than a year to reinstate drivers to help address a shortage that has resulted in many canceled trips because no operators were available.
“This is great news. This is a victory,” Williams said. “I’m glad my efforts were successful.”
Pittsburghers for Public Transit also lauded the decision to reinstate the drivers. In a blog post, Executive Director Laura Wiens said the decision to fire drivers put more people at risk because it led to more crowded buses and buses that never arrived because no driver was available.
“Although PRT claimed to be uplifting rider safety, the March 2022 decision to abruptly terminate 80+ seasoned transit workers came at the expense of both service quality and safety,” she wrote. “The result has been years of buses overcrowded with riders (who vastly outnumbered drivers on any bus and were vaccinated at a far lower rate than operators), and ghost buses that left riders at the curb.”
Wiens also called for the agency to announce a formal plan to increase the number of operators so the agency can expand service. Transit hiring has been a chronic problem across the country for several decades.
“The reinstatement of fired transit workers will provide some immediate relief to our current service crisis but will not be enough on its own to restore and expand service to pre-pandemic levels,” she said.