Bus rides for Metro Vancouver seniors and people with disabilities could be a little less regular this Christmas season.
That’s because more than 30 unvaccinated HandyDART workers will be placed on unpaid leave starting Dec. 21 after they refused to comply with a TransLink-imposed vaccine policy, according to Amalgamated Transit Union local 1724, which represents over 600 HandyDART workers.
In a statement released Dec. 15, the union said the loss of employees “will erode service drastically” and that attempts to find alternative safety measures have been met with “a brick wall of bureaucracy.”
A spokesperson for TransLink would not confirm how many HandyDART workers would be placed on leave due to its mandatory vaccination policy. But based on assurances from its contractor, First Transit, TransLink does not expect the job losses to impact service, wrote TransLink spokesperson Jillian Drew in an email.
HandyDART is TransLink’s door-to-door transportation service for people who can’t navigate public transit without assistance. It’s also available for people who don’t live near an accessible transit route. In 2019, the service helped people navigate more than 1.3 million trips. But when COVID-19 hit, ridership plummeted, dropping to 40 per cent for most of the pandemic, according to TransLink.
HandyDART is now operating at roughly 65 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. But every month, demand grows by roughly 4.5 per cent, putting added pressure on the service.
Local president Mark Beeching said those who have declined to get vaccinated have done so for medical or religious objections.
“We want our clients to be protected. But we also recognize the workers heading out to the street are long-term employees,” he said. “To lose those people is devastating around Christmas, but also devastating to clients.”
'I WAS HOPING TO RETIRE'
Shelley Filmore started at HandyDART as a driver 14 years ago. Since then, she has worked in customer service, as a booking agent, scheduler and dispatcher. Now 55, she manages a group of dispatchers serving all of Metro Vancouver at HandyDART's office in Cloverdale.
Filmore, who has suffered a brain aneurism and has high blood pressure, said she's worried taking the vaccine could threaten her health further and wants to wait until more long-term studies are done.
COVID-19 vaccines have gone through rigorous testing in Canada and across the world. Medical professionals say the kind of concerns expressed by Filmore don't outweigh the greater risk COVID-19 poses to individuals and the population more widely.
Regardless, Filmore's continued objections to the COVID-19 vaccines have placed her among the dozens of HandyDART workers slated to go on unpaid leave over the weekend.
“We cannot collect [employment insurance], and our benefits are stripped immediately. I won’t have any medical coverage for medications for high blood pressure, my asthma and anxiety,” Filmore said. “I’m a single person. I was hoping to retire.”
Losing her job couldn’t come at a worse time.
Filmore lives in an RV parked on Hatzic Island near Mission, B.C. The atmospheric river that flooded huge swathes of the province cut her community off from the world. Her storage sheds flooded and her deck having floated away, for four days, she was trapped in her home with her cat.
The waters receded, only to come rushing back and promoting an evacuation order two weeks later. Using sick and vacation days, Filmore said she fled to her father’s home in Abbotsford, leaving a trail of damage behind she estimates to run into the thousands of dollars.
“Through no fault of my own, I have to struggle with the flood. But now the loss of my income? This is coming right before Christmas,” she said.
UNION PUSHES FOR TESTING OPTION
Filmore said she has no plans to take the vaccine in the near future, but would be willing to do anything else to keep her job — including regular testing.
It's a solution union president Beeching said has proven to work for all sides in other jurisdictions, saving jobs, maintaining reasonable levels of public transportation and safeguarding public health.
Of 17 unionized transit workforces Beeching has surveyed across Canada, he said 10 have implemented a hybrid COVID-19 policy that allows for regular testing in lieu of vaccination.
If a solution isn’t found, both Beeching and Filmore say the public, and in particular the elderly and those with disabilities, will feel the impact.
Already, said Filmore, drivers are running late.
“We have some people working three days of overtime, working on their days off,” she said. “We have people out there waiting. We’re struggling. The stress level is so high.”
SOME UNVACCINATED WORKERS STILL ON THE JOB
Not every unvaccinated TransLink contractor is being forced off the job.
TransLink can't set vaccination policies for contracted workers, but it does require anyone on their properties or interacting with TransLink employees to be fully vaccinated.
Many contractors, such as Blue Bus in West Vancouver, have followed TransLink's lead and rolled out their own mandatory vaccination policy.
HandyDART operator First Transit is the only contractor that has not yet required all employees to be vaccinated.
What that means in practice is all First Transit contractors working on TransLink property — such as the Cloverdale office where Filmore works — are required by default to abide by TransLink's mandatory vaccination policies.
First Transit spokesperson Jay Brock acknowledged all employees entering TransLink facilities would be required to be vaccinated by Dec. 20.
As for the rest of their employees, he said in an email, “The B.C. provincial government has not mandated vaccinations for transit employees, including paratransit drivers.”
By Dec. 21, the only place unvaccinated HandyDART employees will continue to work will be in Vancouver, where First Transit operates its own depot independent of TransLink.