RFTA won’t pursue testing of unvaccinated workers, will focus on bonuses for shots, boosters

About 77% of bus agency workers are vaccinated

A RFTA bus driver wearing gloves and a mask waves at departing passengers after making a stop at the Airport Business Center bus stop Monday, Jan. 10, 2022.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority will scrap plans to test roughly 100 unvaccinated workers for COVID-19 but continue to offer incentives to get the shots.

The bus agency initially planned to require unvaccinated workers to take a rapid antigen test once per week. However, RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship informed the board of directors in a memo last week that management reconsidering for a variety of reasons.

“The expense, logistics, push back from employees, and administrative burden, at an already stressful time for everyone at RFTA, has weighed into the decision not to move forward with the testing program,” Blankenship wrote.

The testing was being pursued as an alternative to mandatory vaccination. However, since the omicron variant has turned out to be so infectious even among people with vaccinations and boosters, RFTA decided it would have to test all 400 employees who enter or work at its facilities. Out of 25 RFTA employees out of work last week for COVID-related reasons, 20 had been vaccinated, according to Blankenship. The testing program for all employees would have been “fairly expensive,” he wrote.

There were also concerns on the effectiveness of testing.

“It appears that Rapid Antigen Testing might be hit and miss depending on which stage in the infection process employees are in when tested,” Blankenship wrote. “We do not believe that a single test per week will reliably identify positive employees in time to prevent them from infecting others.”

In an interview Monday, Blankenship said in an email that management became aware after word of the testing program was out that some employees who were unvaccinated felt the program “could be intrusive and stigmatizing.” There were also concerns about privacy when it initially appeared that just unvaccinated employees would be tested.

“Whether any of the employees who had these concerns would have complied with the program or resigned if it was implemented, we don’t know now but, due to omicron, we are already operating with fewer employees in frontline departments than would otherwise be the case, and we couldn’t afford to lose more,” Blankenship said.

Instead of testing, RFTA will continue to urge employees to get vaccinated and boosted. While the symptoms of omicron appear to be mild, RFTA management feels available information shows it is also advantageous for people to be vaccinated. RFTA is offering a $500 bonus to people who get vaccinated. Now, it will offer a $250 bonus for a booster, as well. A resolution passed in 2021 allows the CEO, in consultation with the board chair, to expend up to $100,000 in emergency expenditures.

“If every one of the 292 (vaccinated) employees currently on staff receives the booster, it will cost RFTA approximately $73,000,” Blankenship wrote.

His memo noted that up to $150,000 had been budgeted for testing in 2022. A portion of those funds will be “repurposed” for the booster incentive.

RFTA requires masks of everyone on its buses. In addition, it has closed its Rubey Park transit center lobby in Aspen to the public.