The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amtrak loosens worker vaccine mandate, will allow testing option to avert service cuts

About 5 percent of the railroad’s workforce was facing termination for not showing proof of vaccination.

An Amtrak worker keeps watch at a station stop Dec. 9 in Burbank, Calif. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Amtrak said Tuesday it is suspending a vaccine mandate for employees, averting the termination of about 500 people and service cuts that were expected next month.

Railroad employees who aren’t vaccinated against the coronavirus will be allowed to submit to weekly testing, Amtrak Chief Executive William J. Flynn said in a memo to workers. The policy applies to the company’s 17,000 employees.

“After reviewing our system service plans in light of these changes, we do not anticipate having system-wide service impacts in January,” Flynn said.

Amtrak last month warned about possible service cuts after the end-of-the-year travel crunch because some workers have not complied with a mandate to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4. Amtrak President Stephen Gardner last week noted the possible cuts in a House hearing, during which he said the railroad didn’t expect to have enough people to operate all trains.

About 5 percent of the railroad’s workforce was facing termination for not showing proof of vaccination by the January deadline. The carrier was primarily looking at reductions along its long-distance routes.

A higher percentage of unvaccinated employees are at stations where routes have “relatively small crew bases at intermediate points along multiday long-distance routes,” Gardner said last week.

Amtrak worker shortage slows railroad’s pandemic recovery, expansion plans

The possible terminations had worried industry leaders and passengers. They were likely to harm Amtrak’s recovery from the pandemic after recent progress in restoring service and rebuilding ridership that had plummeted by 97 percent.

The policy change Tuesday was welcomed by rail advocates.

“Amtrak is doing the right thing,” said Jim Mathews, president and CEO of the Rail Passengers Association. “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.”

In the memo, Flynn said fewer than 500 employees hadn’t complied with the company vaccination mandate as of Tuesday. He said 95.7 percent are either fully vaccinated or have an accommodation, a number that rises to 97.3 percent when including those who have reported getting at least one vaccine dose.

“This is remarkable progress,” Flynn said in the memo. “and we anticipate that between now and Jan. 4, we will get even closer to a 100% vaccination rate, which remains our goal and our policy.”

Amtrak evaluated its policy after a federal district court decision last week that halted enforcement of a vaccine mandate for federal contractors. The company, Flynn said, will revert to its original vaccine mandate policy announced on Aug. 11, which allowed for testing as an alternative to vaccination.

In recent weeks, labor unions that represent Amtrak workers challenged the policy in court and pushed for the return of the more flexible testing option, hoping to protect unvaccinated employees from termination.

For Amtrak, reverting to its original policy eases a worsening staffing problem. The carrier is down 1,500 workers since the start of the pandemic and is struggling to hire amid a national shortage.

The decision to keep unvaccinated workers on the job ensures Amtrak will continue to operate at least 80 percent of its pre-pandemic schedule as it works to lure new passengers and bring back previous riders. Amtrak ridership has recovered to about 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels, officials said.

Under the new rule, unvaccinated employees without an approved accommodation, such as an exemption for medical reasons, will have a testing option on a temporary basis, pending the outcome of the executive order litigation. The company also allows employees with approved exemptions to continue working if they submit a negative coronavirus test at least weekly.

“We believe these most recent changes are both appropriate and prudent, given the recent court decision and the continuing and evolving pandemic,” Flynn said.