RFTA offers workers $500 bonus to get COVID vaccine
About 60% of the 385 employees with Roaring Fork Transportation Authority have gotten their shots
Top officials with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority are disappointed a $500 bonus for employees who get the COVID-19 vaccine has not spurred more action.
As of Tuesday, 212 out of 385 employees for the public transit agency had been fully vaccinated, Jason Smith, RFTA’s safety and training manager, informed the board of directors at a meeting Thursday. Another 18 employees had one dose at that time, he said, boosting the number of fully or partially vaccinated employees to 59%.
Smith said a “surge” of employees got their shots when the bonus was announced and then tailed off. The program is one of the most generous in the valley.
Kurt Ravenschlag, RFTA’s chief operating officer, indicated RFTA officials thought the bonus would inspire more employees to act fast to get the vaccinations.
“We were probably hoping to be at higher numbers than 59%,” he said.
But the number could be lagging because of workload. RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship noted that winter is a busy time for the bus agency’s workers and that some worked overtime during the season.
Getting to scheduled vaccination clinics on a designated day might not have worked for many workers, especially since shots were initially only available in Aspen. Since then, vaccinations have become available in Eagle and Garfield counties and at local pharmacies.
Ed Cortez, a RFTA bus driver and president of the local chapter of the union for drivers, said he believes the $500 bonus was a good incentive that is appreciated by drivers and other employees.
“I would have been happy with $250,” Cortez said. “They went with $500 and I was ecstatic.”
Like Blankenship, Cortez said many drivers haven’t had the time to get their vaccination because of workload. He estimated 75% of them have indicated they will get the shots.
RFTA’s executive team decided in mid-February to offer the financial incentive. The agency was informed by Pitkin County Public Health on Feb. 15 that frontline workers would be eligible for vaccinations in Phase 1B.3, with shots first administered Feb. 25. All RFTA employees, regardless of their department, were considered frontline workers. RFTA management passed on information to employees on how to register for an appointment for a vaccination. However, not everyone could go on the same day since the agency had to maintain bus service.
RFTA management initially figured it would have until March or April to work on a campaign to encourage employees to get vaccinated and determine whether or not to offer an incentive. Instead, it had to act fast in February.
Officials decided that any financial incentive had to be a substantial amount based on lackluster response to a $50 bonus to get a flu shot. Only about 30% of employees got their flu shot.
RFTA also felt the expense of offering $500 incentives was worth it, considering the financial toll that COVID-19 has had on the organization.
“Since the pandemic began, RFTA has had over 130 employees who have either tested positive for COVID-19, experienced COVID-19-like symptoms and were required to quarantine, or were exposed to someone with COVID-19 and required to quarantine,” a March 11 staff memo to the board said.
“During 2020, RFTA incurred over $2 million in direct costs associated with managing the pandemic and on protecting its employees and the public,” the staff memo continued. “These costs are currently ongoing in 2021.”
The bonus is considered a good investment, Blankenship told The Aspen Times. If all employees qualify, it would cost slightly less than $200,000.
Several RFTA employees required extensive hospitalization and they might face significant health effects in the future after getting infected with COVID-19.
“If, by providing a $500 bonus for our employees to get vaccinated, we can help reduce the potential of someone else at RFTA becoming severely ill or worse, it will have been worth it, in my estimation,” Blankenship wrote in an email to The Times.
The expense of the incentives will be more than offset by federal funds RFTA received as part of the coronavirus relief effort. RFTA will receive $19.25 million through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021. The grant is intended to make up for added expenses and lost revenues tied to the pandemic.
RFTA has taken several steps to try to keep employees — drivers, in particular — safe during the pandemic. Steps include limiting contact between drivers and passengers, thoroughly cleaning buses after every shift and requiring masks. RFTA did not offer hazard pay for drivers and other frontline workers this winter.
“In some ways, the $500 vaccination incentive bonus might be considered a bit of hazard pay bonus as well,” Blankenship said via email. “The bonus is a higher than normal amount, which is a reflection of the value RFTA places on the health of its employees and how vital we consider what they do is to the health of the organization and the mobility of the public we serve.”
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Vaccinations for the first group of Aspen-area kids to include 12-to-15-year-olds will take place Thursday at Aspen High School.