Passenger railroad company Amtrak has decided to suspend its COVID-19 vaccine mandate targeting its employees. The decision follows a recent warning issued by company president Stephen Gardner who said Amtrak’s services would be disrupted next year mainly because of workers refusing to abide by the vaccine mandate.
In a memo to employees, Amtrak Chief Executive Bill Flynn stated that when COVID-19 vaccines became available, the company’s objective was to quickly get its workers inoculated.
“When we established a mandate in August, our team’s vaccination percentage was approximately 50%. We adjusted the mandate when the Executive Order was issued in September for federal employees and contractors. Today, 95.7% of our employees are either fully vaccinated or have an accommodation. When we include employees who have reported getting at least one vaccine dose, the number climbs to 97.3%,” the memo said.
At present, less than 500 active employees at Amtrak are not in compliance with the vaccine mandate. Calling the high vaccination rate “remarkable,” Flynn said they anticipate the rate to get close to 100 percent as the deadline for President Joe Biden’s Jan. 4 vaccine mandate approaches. As to why the company decided to reevaluate its vaccine mandate, Flynn pointed to a recent federal court decision that halted the enforcement of Biden’s vaccine mandate for federal contractors.
Employees who have been granted accommodations, like an exception for medical reasons, can continue working provided they submit a weekly negative COVID-19 test result. For unvaccinated individuals who do not have an approved accommodation, the company will provide the testing option on a temporary basis, “pending the outcome of the executive order litigation or further statutory, administrative, or regulatory actions.”
Those who are required to undergo testing but fail to do so will initially be put on unpaid leave. If these employees continue to refuse testing for a long time, it will be considered an insubordinate action, potentially resulting in termination. Due to the relaxed rule, the company does not expect any “system-wide service impacts” next month.
Several industry leaders have praised Amtrak for its decision to pull back the vaccine mandate. “Amtrak is doing the right thing… This addresses the issue without compromising safety. Everyone — crews and passengers — is safest if everyone is vaccinated, but Amtrak reached huge numbers of vaccinations within their staffs, and that’s to their credit,” Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association,” told the Washington Post (WaPo).
The decision to allow unvaccinated employees to continue working at the company will ease Amtrak’s staffing issues. Since the start of the pandemic, Amtrak has lost around 1,500 employees. Its hiring campaign has not gone well and the company is struggling to add more workers amidst a national labor shortage.
With unvaccinated workers included in the workforce, Amtrak is expected to operate at around 80 percent of its pre-pandemic schedule. According to company officials, ridership has presently recovered to around 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels.
When White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki was asked about Amtrak’s decision to not mandate employee vaccinations, she replied by stating that the company is doing it to maintain its workforce.
“The last data I saw was that 96 percent of Amtrak employees had been vaccinated. That’s a pretty high number. So, I guess they’re talking about the remaining 4 percent. And they’re trying to work to ensure that there are adequate employees on the job,” Psaki said.