Passenger railroad service company Amtrak will be cutting down on some of its services due to the labor shortage coinciding with President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 (Coronavirus Disease 2019) vaccine federal mandate.
In written testimony to the House Transportation subcommittee on Dec. 9, Amtrak President Stephen Gardner revealed that 96 percent of the company’s staff members have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with 94 percent being fully vaccinated. He expects those who have received a single dose to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4, the deadline set by the Biden administration for large private employers.
“However, because many engineers, conductors, and on-board service employees retired or left Amtrak during the pandemic, and we temporarily halted hiring due to funding uncertainty and covid-related distancing requirements that inhibited training, we anticipate that we will not initially have enough employees to operate all the trains we are currently operating when the federal mandate takes effect,” Gardner stated.
Amtrak had asked its employees to get vaccinated or comply with weekly COVID-19 testing back in August. Then, in September, Biden issued his federal vaccine mandate targeted at private employers. The initial deadline of Dec. 8 was later moved to Jan. 4.
Biden’s vaccine mandate was temporarily halted after a Dec. 7 ruling by a federal judge in Georgia. In the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan, Amtrak has been allocated 22 billion dollars out of the total 66 billion dollars set aside for rail projects.
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At present, the company has restored roughly 70 percent of its ridership levels following a slump caused by the pandemic. The transportation firm will reveal all affected routes within the next few days and anticipates having to proactively reduce some “train frequencies” across its network temporarily in January so as to avoid “staffing-related cancellations.” According to Gardner, all frequencies will be fully restored by March or as soon as the company has qualified employees.
When prompted about Gardner’s testimony, White House press secretary Jen Psaki dismissed concerns about Amtrak’s service reduction affecting essential services. “We don’t expect these requirements will cause disruptions to services that people depend on… There is some time to implement it. We are of course working with all federal contractors and federal employees and parts of the federal government to implement this going forward,” Psaki said to reporters.
A recently released inspector general report revealed that although Amtrak has ambitious plans to hire workers, it faces significant challenges. The lack of “sufficient leadership or staff” to recruit, screen, hire, and onboard new workers will disrupt the firm’s plans to add up to 3,500 employees by the end of next year.