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Edmonton transit to temporarily reduce bus frequency due to driver COVID-19 vaccination rates

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Majority of City of Edmonton employees vaccinated, outliers cause service disruptions for ETS' COVID-19: Majority of City of Edmonton employees vaccinated, outliers cause service disruptions for ETS
WATCH ABOVE: While 92 per cent of the City of Edmonton's employees have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, 15 bus drivers for ETS have opted to take an unpaid leave instead of complying with a mandatory vaccination policy. As Sarah Ryan explains, that means some buses will be running less frequently come Monday – Oct 28, 2021

UPDATE: As of Nov. 28, 2021, ETS will return to full service on all routes. The transit organization thanked riders for their “patience as bus schedules were temporarily adjusted in early November due to workforce availability and vaccine policy requirements.”

Edmonton Transit Service will be temporarily cutting back the frequency of bus service by about three per cent because of the number of drivers who haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19.

In a news conference on Thursday, spokesperson Carrie Hotton-MacDonald said there are about 51 ETS bus drivers who have not been vaccinated but have opted to participate in the rapid testing program.

About 15 drivers have not complied with the city’s mandatory vaccination policy and have also declined to participate in the rapid testing program. Those employees will be placed on an unpaid leave of absence.

Read more: Edmonton Transit working to reduce crowding on popular bus routes as ridership sits at 50%

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The city is already in the process of finding new drivers to work so that regular bus service can be restored.

“Our training plan had included getting 12 more operators by the end of the year,” Hotton-MacDonald said. “We’ve upped that to 26.”

The ETS operator training takes six weeks, she added.

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In total, there are about 1,700 ETS operators for bus, LRT and on-demand services.

LRT and DATS service will not be impacted at all, Hotton-MacDonald said. Roughly 99 per cent of LRT staff complied with the mandatory vaccination policy and there are no service impacts expected.

As of Oct. 28, 1,503 of the 1,686 ETS operators are fully vaccinated, which equals 89 per cent, the city said. In addition, 85 of the 1,686 operators have one dose, which equals five per cent.

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“Of others who’ve yet to receive their first or second vaccination, the majority have indicated they intend to fully vaccinate in the near future,” a city spokesperson told Global News. “We are monitoring these numbers on a daily basis and we are optimistic they will continue to improve.”

Due to operator vaccination rates, bus service will be reduced by about three per cent starting Monday, Nov. 1.

While “every effort is being made” to spread the frequency changes equally across the city, passengers should be prepared for possible longer waits, Hotton-MacDonald said.

The online ETS tool and 311 will be updated Monday and the ETS route website will be updated to reflect the changes later Thursday.

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During peak times, no route will see less than a 30-minute frequency, Hotton-MacDonald said. Only nine routes have 10 or more reduced trips on weekday schedules, she added.

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“Your bus route is not being cancelled. What you’ll see is a temporary change to how often your bus runs.”

Read more: City of Edmonton to require all employees be vaccinated against COVID-19

In September, the city announced it would be implementing a COVID-19 vaccination policy for all City of Edmonton employees.

By Oct. 31, employees must have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine and submitted proof.

All employees are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (two weeks after receiving the final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine) by Nov. 15.

Employees who are not fully vaccinated by then have two options: either participate in a twice-weekly Health Canada-approved COVID-19 rapid antigen test at the employee’s own expense (and on the employee’s own time) or be placed on leave without pay.

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Hotton-MacDonald said ETS has been proactively reaching out “encouraging and supporting staff” regarding the vaccine policy and the union has also been “very supportive” and “helpful to work with.”

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For its part, the union appreciates how the city has worked with it, consulted carefully to quickly implement service cuts while still complying with the collective agreement, said union president Steve Bradshaw.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 569 is advising members to comply with the vaccine mandate.

“We think it’s a good thing. We’re in a pandemic. We’re still fighting to kill a virus that’s killing people.”

“If you can’t comply by reasons of religious or medical exclusions, then you should talk with your supervisor, talk with us, and we’ll work on getting you an accommodation for that.”

Bradshaw said the union has initiated a grievance regarding the city’s requirement of having employees pay for their own rapid tests.

“We think that since it’s mandated by the city, the city should be prepared to cover the cost.

“We’ll see where it goes.”

He said the union has not yet met with the city about the grievance yet.

Hotton-MacDonald said she’s “really optimistic” that ETS will be able to return to regular bus service “definitely by the end of the year… hopefully sooner.”

When determining which bus routes would be reduced, ETS looked at frequency of service, number of trips running, keeping frequency of service at least every 30 minutes during peak hours, the demand for trips, and didn’t want to impact school specials at all.

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City of Edmonton staff

When the city announced its mandatory vaccine policy in September, it asked employees to disclose if they’d been immunized or not. As of Sept. 13, the city said 86 per cent of employees responded, and 72 per cent of employees indicated they were fully vaccinated.

Read more: Protesters in Calgary, Edmonton oppose mandatory vaccinations

Cyndil Taylor, branch manager of workforce safety, said Thursday that as of Oct. 27, 92 per cent were partially or fully vaccinated. As of Oct. 27, across the organization, 88 per cent of city staff were fully vaccinated and four per cent were partially vaccinated, which is about 92 per cent of the workforce.

“This policy has made a real difference.”

She said the vaccination rate among city staff has grown “exponentially” in the last few months. There are no expected impacts for city services like rec centres, development permits or taxation.

Read more: COVID-19: Where you must show proof of vaccination in Alberta

Employees who have not provided proof of double vaccination by Nov. 1 will have to comply with the rapid testing program.

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“We believe that our employees are going to be compliant with this next step, which is rapid testing,” Taylor said Thursday. If they don’t provide a negative rapid test before their shift?

“They’ll be placed on leave without pay.”

Roughly 980 city staff members have not reported their vaccination status. Taylor said the city is not providing a breakdown by branch.

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Edmonton Fire Rescue Services

Edmonton Fire Chief Joe Zatylny said 90 per cent of EFRS members have received both COVID-19 shots.

Of the remaining 10 per cent, three per cent have received one dose of vaccine and seven per cent are unvaccinated.

Read more: AHS threatened with constitutional challenge over COVID-19 vaccine mandate

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Zatylny said the fire department has been in direct contact with those seven per cent and the “majority” have already agreed to take part in the rapid testing program.

“There’s a handful of our front-line workers who are still considering,” he said. “We’re working with them. Almost all have already decided they’ll participate in rapid testing.”

EFRS will make adjustments as needed and doesn’t expect any staffing or service challenges, Zatylny said.

“We do have contingencies in place,” he added.

“At Edmonton Fire Rescue Services, safety is and always will be our top priority.”

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