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Bus drivers say ’no’ to shot

More than half of the bus drivers at Rogue Valley Transportation District haven’t received the COVID-19 vaccine, prompting a call for their termination.

Bill Mansfield, a member of the RVTD board, failed to get enough votes at the Aug. 25 board meeting to force the issue, but other board members indicated they wanted to give drivers more chance to get the shot before taking any punitive action.

“I moved to direct staff to terminate people who refuse to vaccinate,” Mansfield said. “I believe the district has a duty to our riders to keep them safe.”

The board voted 5 to 2 against the motion, but a proposed resolution related to a vaccine mandate is scheduled to appear on the agenda for RVTD’s Sept. 22 meeting.

“I warned them,” Mansfield said. “I’m not forgetting this.”

Of the district’s 66 bus drivers, 35 have indicated they haven’t taken the shot, according to an internal survey of employees. Some may have religious or medical exemptions.

According to the survey, 41% of drivers who are not vaccinated said they would quit their job if forced to get the shot.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given full approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine last month, setting the stage for more workplace mandates.

Julie Brown, general manager of RVTD, said she has been meeting with employees individually to discuss vaccinations and other concerns.

“As emotional as Bill (Mansfield) was during the board meeting, they are just as emotional,” she said.

Brown said she was “blindsided” by Mansfield’s motion, which wasn’t on the agenda, but she has been gathering information about efforts by other transportation organizations to increase the vaccination rate of their employees.

One possibility is to offer incentives, including providing some time off so an employee can receive the shot.

Tri-Met in Portland is offering an extra floating holiday to employees who get vaccinated, she said.

Another idea being considered is: “If you vaccinate and do get COVID, we will give you the time off for your recovery and we will pay.”

She said a vaccine mandate would likely result in the loss of some bus routes because of a lack of drivers. Losing even 15 drivers would have a significant impact on service, Brown said. RVTD has recently expanded its routes.

Rather than take a punitive stance, Brown said she keeps her door open to all her employees so she can discuss their concerns.

“Everybody is doing the best they can, and we’re doing everything to support them,” she said.

The drivers start at $22.44 an hour, and the top wage is $27 an hour, including health insurance and a matching retirement savings plan.

“It is a stressful job,” Brown said, noting drivers have to deal with unruly passengers from time to time as well as traffic.

Even if drivers are vaccinated, Brown said, there’s no guarantee that the riders on the bus are vaccinated.

While some drivers might quit rather than be vaccinated, it’s possible they could be denied unemployment benefits, according to the Oregon Employment Department. Health insurance companies are considering increasing premiums for those who haven’t been vaccinated.

Since the pandemic started, RVTD drivers and passengers have been required to wear masks, unless they have a medical condition. A Plexiglas shield offers additional protection around the driver, Brown said.

Every time a bus pulls in to the Front Street station in Medford, it is cleaned.

Most of the fares are now touchless, which lessens the potential contact between a driver and rider. Employees have their temperatures checked when they report to work.

Since March 2020, eight employees have contracted COVID-19, and they were infected outside of work. Most had only mild symptoms.

Brown said the lack of on-the-job infections gives her a lot of confidence that the cleaning routines and protective devices are working to keep everybody safe.

Nevertheless Brown, who is still recovering from surgery earlier this year, said she is sympathetic to concerns about vaccines. She was vaccinated in January.

Tonia Moro, RVTD board chair, said, “For the most part, all of the board members are sympathetic to what Bill Mansfield was trying to say.”

But Moro views this as a lengthy process that requires a number of steps before any action might be taken.

She said she was also concerned that Mansfield’s motion was not on the Aug. 25 agenda

Moro said she wants the issue placed on the next board meeting agenda. She had earlier contemplated calling for a special meeting but realized RVTD staff needed to compile a lot of information about what other transportation agencies are doing in regard to vaccine mandates. She said both federal and state officials are looking into some of the same issues being faced by RVTD.

It’s an issue that requires discussions with the union that represents the bus drivers, as well.

“That’s why we’re waiting,” Moro said. “That’s why we’re doing our due diligence.”

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune The RVTD board is considering making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for all drivers.