The Alaska Railroad board of directors on Tuesday voted unanimously to rescind an employee COVID-19 vaccine mandate that they announced just days earlier in a companywide email.
The initial mandate, which stipulated that all railroad employees be vaccinated by Dec. 8, was issued to comply with sweeping federal vaccine requirements ordered by President Joe Biden last month. Under the rules, all U.S. businesses with 100 or more workers must require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or get tested weekly, and employees of federal contractors — such as the Alaska Railroad — must be vaccinated with no option for a testing alternative.
The Alaska Railroad currently has a vaccination rate of 52.6% among its 692 employees, railroad spokesman Tim Sullivan said.
“Over the last six weeks, we’ve carefully reviewed additional EO guidelines and our interactions with federal agencies to determine if the Alaska Railroad is affected. We are. As a federal contractor, ARRC must meet this standard,” said the Friday email to Alaska Railroad employees.
Noncompliance with the mandate could cost the state-owned corporation millions of dollars in federal grants and contracts, and the space it leases from the U.S. Forest Service in the historic freight shed in Anchorage, Sullivan said.
But the latest decision to hold off on requiring staff vaccinations followed legal challenges to the federal mandate, Sullivan said.
“The board rescinded the requirement and may revisit it, depending on what happens with the legal actions that have come to light since we (sent the letter out) late Friday afternoon,” Sullivan said, citing an amended complaint to a lawsuit filed by the Arizona attorney general to block the mandate.
“We expect that there will be other legal actions and we’re waiting to see what the courts do,” he said.
Alaska Railroad board members who voted to block the mandate said during Tuesday’s virtual meeting that they were deeply reluctant to require vaccinations of employees.
“We’ve been put in a very difficult position by the federal government,” said John Shively, board chair. “There’s not a single board member that likes this at all,” he said.
“I think it might be premature to do something that ultimately could be harmful to Alaska railroad families and the railroad itself,” added John Binkley, the board member who proposed the stop-order.
”We have one of our U.S. senators that has implored us and others within the state of Alaska not to make these decisions until there is more certainty on what direction is the country is headed on this,” Binkley said during Tuesday’s meeting, referencing comments U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan made in a speech on the Senate floor last week.
”There just seems to be a lot of state of flux in terms of how this is going to manifest itself,” Binkley said.
(Binkley’s sons and daughter are the owners of the Anchorage Daily News, and Binkley himself does not have a role in the paper’s operations. The Binkleys are not involved in news coverage.)
During the meeting, railroad employees were given an opportunity to offer input on the vaccination requirement.
One of the speakers was Scott Sigman, who introduced himself during the meeting as an engineer and conductor at the Alaska Railroad for more than 24 years. He called the federal vaccine mandate “an overreach.”
“I don’t understand why this is happening. What happened to my body, my choice? This is destroying lives right now,” he said.
The uncertainty over how the railroad’s approach to the federal vaccine mandate may affect its workforce, grants and government contracts could complicate its recovery from blows dealt by the pandemic. The Alaska Railroad lost $7.8 million in revenue in 2020, according to its annual report.
Tim Sullivan, the railroad spokesman, said the company went from moving about 520,000 people in 2019 to about 30,000 in 2020, and an estimated 180,000 in 2021.
“We’re hopeful that things in 2022 will be much better,” he said.
[Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the last name of the Alaska Railroad board chair. His name is John Shively, not John Shirly. This story has also been updated to clarify the federal vaccination requirements and specify that the Alaska Railroad is a federal contractor.]