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Alaska Railroad rescinds COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all employees, for now

Alaska Railroad Corporation
Alaska Railroad Corporation(KTUU)
Published: Oct. 26, 2021 at 3:35 PM AKDT|Updated: Oct. 26, 2021 at 3:54 PM AKDT

JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska Railroad Corp.’s board of directors has rescinded a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all employees, for now.

Board members said they were compelled to implement a vaccine mandate, following President Joe Biden’s executive order. The order requires all federal contractors and subcontractors to vaccinate their staff.

A letter had been sent to all railroad employees on Friday, informing them that they needed to be fully vaccinated, or receive an exemption, by Dec. 8. Tim Sullivan, spokesperson for the railroad, said 52.6% of its 692 employees are fully vaccinated.

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 Air Force 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 Alaska Railroad makes around $150 million per year.

The railroad could also lose out on Federal Transit Administration funding, O’Leary said, if a vaccine mandate is not implemented.

Employees, board members and union representatives called into a special board of director’s meeting on Tuesday to object to a vaccine mandate. Some said they were faced with the choice of getting vaccinated, which they didn’t want to do, or risk losing their jobs.

After an executive session, board member John Binkley introduced a motion to postpone the vaccine mandate deadline indefinitely. It was amended to rescind the mandate entirely, which passed unanimously.

John Shively, another board member, called a vaccine executive order “un-American” and said the corporation should examine whether there could be testing options available instead. Following the railroad’s legal advice, he said that a vaccine mandate could be inevitable, regardless of what the board does.

“To be frank, absent the courts stepping in and doing something, at some point, we’re going to come under these executive orders, as onerous as they are,” Shively explained.

Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy has opposed the federal vaccine mandate and Alaska Attorney General Treg Taylor wrote to the president last month, demanding that he drop his executive order.

“Governor Dunleavy does not believe in vaccine mandates and will use every authority he has to prevent a vaccine mandate from being placed on state employees and employees of state owned corporations,” said Jeff Turner, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, on Tuesday.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also called on employers not to fire staff who don’t comply with the president’s vaccine mandate. But, it’s unclear how much authority Dunleavy or the U.S. Senate have to reject an executive order in this way. National media outlets have reported that courts have long said that federal vaccine mandates are valid.

Board member Judy Petry opposed the vaccine mandate, but stressed that despite the board’s actions to rescind it, the executive order is still in effect.

“We’ll be back together with more information when more information is available,” she said to employees listening in on the special meeting.

The president’s executive order raises questions for the railroad’s union employees. O’Leary’s letter stated that the corporation had informed union leadership of the now-rescinded vaccine deadline “as this triggers a union’s right to bargain regarding the effects of this requirement.” But union members would still need to get vaccinated.

In 2019, over 70% of the Alaska Railroad’s 547 year-round employees were members of a union. Joelle Hall, head of the Alaska AFL-CIO, explained that implementing an executive order of this type is a condition of work and needs to be negotiated between management and union leadership.

“We believe this is the subject of bargaining,” she said.

That could see employees who refuse to comply with a vaccine mandate given leave without pay or being terminated, among other potential options. Numerous other U.S. transportation companies and corporations are complying with the president’s vaccine mandates, including Amtrak, Union Pacific and Alaska Airlines.

Some employees asked at the special meeting what the alternative might be for hauling goods, and whether the railroad faces competition in that area. O’Leary said trucking companies can haul materials, and the GSA could find office space elsewhere.

“Every single thing we do at the Alaska Railroad has competition,” he said.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated with additional information.

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