Alaska Railroad rescinds vaccine mandate for employees

The board of directors of the state-owned Alaska Railroad has voted unanimously to rescind the vaccination mandate it had imposed on employees just days earlier.  According to the Anchorage Daily News, last Friday, it had emailed employees:

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[.]

The railroad stands to lose millions of dollars a year in federal contracts and grants, and possibly access to Forest Service land housing some facilities.  This is no small item for a company with only $209 million in revenue in 2019.

The move is a stunning turnaround and must reflect both threats of loss of vital personnel and political support for the move from the state's politicians. 

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.

Currently, 52.6% of the railroad's 692 employees are vaccinated, well below the national average.

According to KTUU:

Bill O'Leary, CEO of the Alaska Railroad, said on Tuesday that the board members "in no way relish" implementing a vaccine mandate, but the corporation risked losing contracts worth millions of dollars as it "certainly" fits the definition of being a federal contractor."

Compliance with an order that has the effect of federal law, and the risk to key revenue and capital funding sources, drives us to such an implementation," he said.

The railroad owns significant real estate holdings across Alaska. The General Services Administration, a federal agency, informed the railroad earlier in the month that its lease agreement would need to be amended to ensure all employees are vaccinated. If it wasn't amended, the agency would not renew its contract.

The GSA contract is worth over $1 million, O'Leary said, and there are other contracts at risk. The railroad ships military goods to Fort Wainwright and Eielson Airforce Base and coal from Fairbanks.

Sullivan said via email that, without a vaccine mandate, the railroad could lose between $8-$10 million in revenue from hauling annually.

The company apparently sees legal challenges to the mandate as justifying the defiance, at least for now:   

"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.

Most of the line was actually built by the United States Government, which purchased an existing financially troubled short railroad from the port of Seward and extended it inland hundreds of miles, to the town of Fairbanks.  It was run by the feds until it was sold to the State of Alaska in 1985.

So far, the courts have not been kind to efforts to halt the mandate.

The AP reported:

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Tuesday [October 19] to block a vaccine requirement imposed on Maine health care workers, the latest defeat for opponents of vaccine mandates.

The Epoch Times reported:

A federal judge in Texas on Tuesday threw out a request brought by a union that represents Southwest Airlines pilots to block the company from carrying out its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA), which has some 9,000 members, filed a lawsuit earlier this month to prevent the carrier from mandating that its workers get vaccinated against COVID-19 by Dec. 8 under federal rules, barring religious or medical exemptions.

The union had argued that the carrier had illegally changed work rules instead of negotiating with pilots, and in doing so, violated a federal labor law — the Railway Labor Act, which governs airline-labor relations and its collective bargaining agreement.

In dismissing the union's request to temporarily block the company mandate, U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn wrote that the COVID-19 vaccination requirement for Southwest employees would "likewise improve the safety of air transportation, efficiency of Southwest's operations."

The mandate would also "further the [collective bargaining agreement's] goal of safe and reasonable working conditions for pilots," the judge wrote in her 25-page ruling on Tuesday.

"In addition, because Southwest is a federal contractor, the Vaccine Policy is required by law," the judge added.

I anticipate this issue will eventually end up in the Supreme Court, but unless more companies follow the lead of the Alaska Railroad, it may be moot in most companies and agencies by the time a decision is reached.

Photo credit: Frank KovalcheckCC BY 2.0 license.

To comment, you can find the MeWe post for this article here.