Some Port Authority workers protest vaccine mandate as others get their shots

PITTSBURGH — As workers from the Port Authority of Allegheny County gathered in downtown Pittsburgh Friday to protest a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, the company announced nearly 150 additional employees provided proof of vaccination this week.

>>PHOTOS: Port Authority workers protest vaccine mandate as others get their shots

“More than 140 Port Authority employees returned to work this week after showing proof that they were fully vaccinated, an encouraging sign just days after the vaccine requirement went into effect,” a news release from the Port Authority said.

The mandate took effect on Tuesday, leading to a staffing shortage among workers who had not complied. That created large-scale delays and cancelled routes for riders.

>>RELATED STORY: Port Authority offering free rides through Sunday due to staffing shortages, cancelled routes

“It’s a mess, and this all could have been avoided,” said Jacob Meinert, who works in the Port Authority’s maintenance department and is currently on leave.

Those opposed to the mandate rallied outside the Port Authority’s downtown headquarters Friday morning.

Meinert applied for a religious exemption but was denied. Now, he will be taking part in a disciplinary hearing in the coming days, and he said he expects to be fired.

“They accepted 40 religion exemptions and they denied the rest, so there’s a couple hundred of us they denied,” said Meinert.

Drivers still on the job showed solidarity with their suspended co-workers Friday, honking as they passed the crowd.

“We all want to work,” said Meinert. “We don’t want to be here right now. We’d rather be at work.”

Earlier this week, the agency said 180 operators and 480 total employees were being held off work.

On Friday, the Port Authority updated that number, saying: “There are now a total of 340 employees being held off work pending disciplinary hearings (204 who remain unvaccinated and 136 with one dose). Of the 136 employees who have received one dose, 86 are operators. Port Authority has about 2,600 employees, including 1,120 operators.”

As of Friday, the Port Authority said more than 90% of employees are either fully vaccinated or “well on their way.”

For workers who remain unvaccinated or have only one dose, disciplinary hearings began today. Disciplinary hearings have been cancelled for those who met the requirement this week.

For Meinert and Trisha Cavanaugh, the wife of a Port Authority worker on leave, the mandate is putting their families in a difficult position.

“It’s a nightmare,” said Cavanaugh. “Our income’s been cut in half. My husband isn’t sleeping at night. He’s dealing with anxiety. He’s got heart palpitations. It’s ridiculous.”

According to the Port Authority, anyone who decides to get vaccinated can return to work on a 30-day preliminary basis until they get their second dose.

On Thursday, Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman apologized to riders impacted by the service disruptions.

“Your frustration is absolutely understandable. This is how you get around and you deserve a better experience than what you’re getting now,” said Kelleman.