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January 27, 2022
Amtrak will have to reduce passenger service beginning in January unless more employees abide by the federal COVID-19 vaccine mandate which takes effect in January, according to The Associated Press.
Amtrak president Stephen Gardner told House lawmakers on Thursday that while roughly 95% of the rail system’s workers have received at least one dose of the vaccine, the remaining employees face the January 4 deadline that the corporation put into place, mirroring the deadline that President Joe Biden enacted for employees of federal contractors.
In a setback for the administration, a judge on Tuesday blocked the federal vaccine mandate for employees of federal contractors. However, the White House says that it will vigorously stand up for its mandate for employees of federal contractors in court.
An Amtrak spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that if the mandate was still blocked on January 4, then the rail system’s mandate would remain in effect for that date. Gardner on Thursday detailed scheduling issues that are likely to arise until more employees are fully vaccinated.
“We anticipate proactively needing to temporarily reduce some train frequencies across our network in January to avoid staffing-related cancellations — with our plan to fully restore all frequencies by March, or as soon as we have qualified employees available,” he told lawmakers at a hearing of the House transportation subcommittee on railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Thursday brushed off any substantial impact on Amtrak caused by the vaccine mandate, emphasizing that staffers have overwhelmingly been inoculated against the coronavirus and noted that several weeks remain until the deadline.
“What we have conveyed to employers is post-deadline, we expect employers will follow their standard HR process,” she said during a press briefing. “That means if an employee’s not in compliance they’ll go through education, counseling, accommodations, and enforcement. That would be what the process would be to play out.”
She continued: “We don’t expect these requirements will cause disruptions to services that people depend on. There is some time to implement it.”
The development comes as the passenger railroad service will receive an unprecedented $66 billion in funding as part of the newly-signed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that was championed by Biden, an Amtrak loyalist who took the train regularly between his Delaware home and Washington DC when he served in the Senate.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Amtrak sharply curtailed its service due to low ridership; at one point, ridership on the passenger railroad service was a 4% of its pre-pandemic level.
Gardner stated that Amtrak has restored the majority of its service and now has roughly 70% of its pre-pandemic traffic, but noted that it’s going to take several years for ridership to resemble figures from 2019.
Much of the traffic rebound will depend on business travel, according to Gardner. During the 2021 fiscal year, Amtrak ridership was 12.2 million, compared with 32.5 million riders in 2019. For the 2020 fiscal year, ending on September 30, Amtrak transported 16.8 million passengers to destinations across the United States.
Amtrak hopes to hire roughly 2,500 to 3,500 employees by September 2022, but the company currently lacks the human resources personnel needed to screen and hire future employees, according to its own inspector general.
In August, Amtrak said that employees would need to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or face weekly testing. In September, Biden originally issued his mandate for federal workers and employees of federal contractors to be fully vaccinated by December 8, before the deadline was pushed to January 4 [Business Insider].
MANAGING EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE
PHOTO CREDITS: KENOSHA NEWS