Amtrak is temporarily suspending its vaccine mandate for employees, according to multiple reports Tuesday. The rail service also does not plan to cut service in January.
It cites a federal court decision that stops enforcement of President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate for federal contractors. Last week, a federal judge in Georgia blocked the administration from enforcing the mandate, saying that Biden exceeded his authority in issuing the executive order for vaccinations. The ruling expanded one issued by a federal judge in Kentucky that was limited to contractors in three states.
Fewer than 500 active Amtrak employees have not complied with the mandate, Reuters reported.
The news comes days after Amtrak suggested a potential need to reduce service in January unless more employees get vaccinated. Amtrak president Stephen Gardner said last week that about 95% of Amtrak workers are at least partially vaccinated. The rest faced a Jan. 4 deadline that the Biden administration set for employees of federal contractors.
If enough employees resist getting the shots, “We anticipate proactively needing to temporarily reduce some train frequencies across our network in January to avoid staffing-related cancellations," Gardner told a congressional panel Thursday.
Gardner said any service reductions would last until March "or as soon as we have qualified employees available.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki downplayed the impact of the vaccine mandate on Amtrak.
Amtrak cut service and reduced its workforce after travel plummeted because of the pandemic — at its low point last year, ridership fell to 4% of its pre-pandemic level.
Gardner said Amtrak has restored most service and about 70% of passenger traffic has returned, “but it's going to take several years” for ridership to return to 2019 numbers. The exact timing, he said, will depend on how long the pandemic lasts and how quickly business travelers get back on the train.
Amtrak has said it expects to hire 2,500 to 3,500 employees by September 2022, but its own inspector general said this week that the company doesn’t have enough staff or leadership in human resources to recruit, screen and hire those workers. Nearly half of the 64 jobs in talent-acquisition are vacant, leading to hiring delays, the auditor said.
Amtrak said in August that all employees would need to get vaccinated or be tested weekly for COVID-19. In September, President Joe Biden ordered that federal workers and employees of federal contractors be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8, a deadline that was later delayed until Jan. 4.
Separately, other judges have held up Biden’s vaccine mandates for health care workers and companies with at least 100 employees.