(Adds Rep. Graves quote in eight paragraph and inspector general report in final two paragraphs.)
Amtrak expects it won’t have enough employees to operate all its trains next month when it plans to enforce Covid-19 vaccine requirements.
As Amtrak prepares to comply with the federal vaccine mandate, it will likely need to temporarily reduce frequency, particularly on its long-distance services, Stephen J. Gardner, president of Amtrak, said in written testimony for a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing. About 94% of the rail company’s workers have been fully vaccinated as of this week.
“Achieving full service levels, while complying with the vaccination requirement and continuing to prioritize the safety of our customers and employees, is our goal,” Gardner said in his testimony.
The problem is most acute on multi-day routes, where crew bases at some intermediate points have relatively lower rates of vaccinated employees.
Amtrak said it will need to comply with the Jan. 4 mandate that requires employees of government contractors to be fully vaccinated. However, the vaccine requirements for federal contractors have been challenged by states in court and the mandate for contractors was recently blocked.
Amtrak plans to announce service reductions by next week and re-book customers as needed, Gardner said in the testimony. The full schedule should be restored by March “or as soon as we have qualified employees available,” he told the committee.
Amtrak told its employees in a memo in August that it was imposing a vaccine mandate or weekly testing requirement.
“Amtrak just got about $60 billion in new funding, but now President Biden’s vaccine mandates are spurring new worker shortages and service cuts, thwarting recovery from historic Amtrak losses last year,” Committee ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said on Twitter, referring to the money in the recently enacted infrastructure law (Public Law 117-58). “Taxpayers will be paying more money for less service.”
Many of the railroad company’s employees retired or left during the pandemic. Amtrak also halted hiring because of funding uncertainty, which resulted in staffing issues that will be exacerbated by the mandate, Gardner said.
Amtrak may face additional challenges filling open positions over the next year. The company’s human resources department doesn’t have adequate staff or managers to recruit and onboard new workers, which is expected to affect its plan to add thousands of employees, according to an Amtrak Office of Inspector General report released Thursday.
Amtrak is planning to increase its workforce by as much as 21% through October 2022, and the infrastructure law will further expand the need for more employees at the company, the report found. Many of the positions the company needs to fill are for the 1,894 employees that left the company during the pandemic, from about March 2020 to May 2021.