WASHINGTON – Amtrak will need to reduce service in January unless more employees get vaccinated against COVID-19, the passenger rail system’s president says.
Stephen Gardner says about 95% of Amtrak workers are at least partially vaccinated. The rest face 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. She touted the high percentage of its employees who are vaccinated and noted that others still have four weeks before the deadline, which will be followed by a period of “counseling, accommodations and enforcement.”
“We don’t expect these requirements will cause disruptions to services that people depend on,” Psaki said during a briefing Thursday. “There is some time to implement it.”
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.
This 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.
Separately, other judges have held up Biden’s vaccine mandates for health care workers and companies with at least 100 employees.