To mandate or not? For now, few railroads require workers to get the shot

10/4/2021

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) is advising railroads to encourage their workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine. 

In a message sent Sept. 28 to railroad leaders, the FRA noted that vaccination rates continue to climb across the country, and “everyone must do their part to combat COVID-19 by getting vaccinated.” The agency has data indicating that after 10 weeks of rising numbers, the rail industry has reported two consecutive weeks of decreasing cases. 

“This is an encouraging sign and FRA strongly encourages railroads to build on this momentum by urging their employees to get vaccinated,” the agency’s message stated. 

FRA officials also said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that people 65 years and older and those older than 18 with underlying medical conditions, or who live or work in high-risk settings should get a booster shot. 

Noting the prevalence of the more contagious Delta variant of the virus, the FRA’s message included links to information from the Mayo Clinic U.S. COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker and CDC estimates of vaccine hesitancy for COVID-19. 

“Please share this information and do all you can to encourage vaccination among your workforces. Some companies are providing paid time off to receive the vaccine, cash awards, or gift cards to motivate employees to get vaccinated,” FRA officials stated. 

While the FRA sent its message only last week, executives at major U.S. and Canadian railroads have been holding internal discussions about the COVID-19 vaccination status of their workforces. Two major railroads — CN and Amtrak — recently announced they would mandate the vaccine for employees.  

The Port of Long Beach CN is requiring all its employees in Canada to get the coronavirus vaccine. EB Adventure Photography / Shutterstock.com

Amtrak executives said in mid-August it would require employees and new hires to get vaccinated by Nov. 1 or submit to weekly testing. But a month later, the company pushed back the deadline to Nov. 22 to be consistent with President Biden’s executive order that federal employees get vaccinated by Nov. 22. Additionally, Amtrak — to be consistent with the federal order — will not offer a weekly testing alternative. 

The mandate applies to Amtrak’s more than 18,000 employees, as well as “red badge” contractors and any other people who regularly work on Amtrak property. Effective Oct. 4, new Amtrak hires must show full proof of vaccination before their first day of employment. 

“Complying with this mandate by getting vaccinated is the simplest and most effective thing we each can do to protect ourselves and our families, customers and coworkers,” Amtrak Chief Executive Officer Bill Flynn wrote in a Sept. 21 memo to employees.  

Meanwhile, CN announced Sept. 8 that vaccination will be required as of Nov. 1 for all employees and new hires in Canada, as well as contractors, consultants, agents, suppliers and anyone who access CN’s Canadian properties. The Montreal-based Class I said in a press release it is taking “robust measures” in line with the Canadian government, which announced in August it will make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for federal employees and for people working in some federally regulated industries in the transportation sector, including rail. 

As of last week, CN was the only North American Class I to announce a vaccine mandate. In emailed responses to inquiries from RailPrime, spokespersons for four other Class Is — CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern Railway and Union Pacific Railroad — said that, while not currently enforcing a vaccine mandate, they’re encouraging employees to get the shot. The railroads consider the pandemic a safety matter, all four said. 

Additionally, the railroads are evaluating Biden’s executive order and its potential impact on private employers. 

On Sept. 9, Biden set out a series of proposals to combat the pandemic more aggressively, including plans for a new rule requiring employers with 100 or more workers to mandate their workers to be vaccinated or get tested weekly. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is developing a rule that will require all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or require any workers who remain unvaccinated to produce a negative test result on at least a weekly basis before coming to work. OSHA will issue an Emergency Temporary Standard (ETS) to implement this requirement, according to whitehouse.gov. 

“CSX is thoroughly reviewing President Biden’s order and will continue to monitor as additional details about the plan are finalized,” said CSX spokeswoman Sheriee Bowman. “Safety remains the most important part of our work at CSX, and we will continue to prioritize the well-being of our employees as we have throughout this pandemic.” 

From the pandemic’s onset, CSX assembled a response team to implement protocols and preventative measures to safeguard workers and operations, Bowman said. Those protocols are constantly reviewed and updated to align with evolving guidance from federal agencies. 

“In addition, we continue to encourage all employees to get vaccinated and even implemented a vaccination incentive program with multiple cash prizes for employees that demonstrated they were fully vaccinated,” Bowman added. 

CSX isn’t the only railroad to offer such incentives.  

“We continue to strongly encourage all of our employees to get vaccinated and offer a variety of incentives for them to do so, including gifts and prizes ranging from company swag to cash prizes,” said Robynn Tysver, a communications manager for UP. 

Officials from NS and KCS said they’re waiting for more guidance from OSHA. From the get-go, KCS has been complying with FRA and local jurisdiction requirements and CDC guidelines at its facilities, said Doniele Carlson, the company’s assistant vice president of corporate communications and community affairs. 

Likewise, NS has put the health and safety of workers first since the pandemic’s start, said NS spokesman Jeff DeGraff.  

“We’re watching implementation of the Biden administration COVID action plan closely to see how it will affect us,” he said. “We continue to encourage all of our people to get vaccinated and to adhere to other safety measures recommended by the CDC.”