News & Reviews News Wire Norfolk Southern warns that COVID-19 vaccine mandate poses risks to service (updated)

Norfolk Southern warns that COVID-19 vaccine mandate poses risks to service (updated)

By Bill Stephens | October 27, 2021

CEO Jim Squires says federal mandate may exacerbate crew shortage

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James Squires
Norfolk Southern CEO James Squires (Norfolk Southern)

NORFOLK, Va. — Norfolk Southern CEO Jim Squires warned today that the railroad’s train crew shortages may be exacerbated by the federal COVID-19 vaccination mandate that takes effect on Dec. 8.

Like CSX Transportation, NS is experiencing higher than normal attrition among its train crews and is having trouble hiring new conductors due to the tight labor market. NS says its new conductors and conductor trainees are also leaving the railroad at higher rates.

“We sincerely hope we won’t lose a single Norfolk Southern employee as a result of that government mandate,” Squires told investors and analysts on the railroad’s earnings call.

Squires said he hopes railroaders will get vaccinated or seek an exemption that’s allowed under the law.

“This was not our idea, this was not our initiative. This was a mandate. We reviewed it, we studied it, we went over it with a fine-tooth comb,” Squires says. “We determined that we are federal contractors subject to the executive order because of the business we do for the Department of Defense.

“It’s a tough decision that’s being imposed on some of our employees, as a result. And we do regret that,” Squires adds. “However, we will follow the law. It clearly applies to us, and we must comply.”

Employees have time to be fully vaccinated before the deadline.

“We’re keeping a very close eye on the impact … We will probably lose some employees as a result of this,” Squires says.

NS has made policymakers aware of the risks the vaccine mandate could pose to rail service. “We are being very vocal about the possible consequences to the supply chain and to the economy,” Squires says.

Front of train
CSX GP40-2 No. 6498 leads an eastbound train through River Forest, Ill., on the Union Pacific in November 2019. UP has announced a vaccine mandate for employees, while CSX says it is still studying an executive order. TRAINS: David Lassen

Union Pacific also has said its employees must be fully vaccinated by the Dec. 8 deadline, but did not say whether it expects the mandate to create crew shortages.

“Union Pacific understands that some employees are frustrated about the mandate. We also understand this might be a difficult decision, but we are hopeful our employees will comply by the Dec. 8 deadline. We don’t want to lose good people but as a government contractor and subcontractor, we are required to comply with the law,” spokeswoman Robynn Tysver says.

BNSF Railway, Canadian National, and CSX Transportation all say they are still reviewing the Biden administration’s Sept. 9 executive order that requires employees of federal contractors to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Due to a federal mandate for transportation workers in Canada, CN already requires its Canadian employees to be vaccinated.

“CSX continues to evaluate the president’s executive order regarding COVID-19 vaccine mandates. 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,” spokeswoman Cindy Schild says. “From the onset, we implemented safety protocols and preventative measures to safeguard our people and operations, including a vaccine incentive program for all employees. These protocols and programs are constantly reviewed and updated to remain current and align with the Centers for Disease Control guidelines.”

Canadian Pacific does not have a COVID-19 vaccine policy, a spokesman says. Kansas City Southern encourages its employees to get vaccinated but does not have a mandate, spokeswoman Doniele Carlson says.

Passenger train stops at station
Amtrak’s Illini stops at the Kankakee, Ill., station. Amtrak is requiring employees to be vaccinated by Nov. 10 (Trains: David Lassen)

Amtrak has changed its deadline to meet the vaccination mandate from Nov. 10 to Dec. 8, to align with the federal order, according to a Thursday message to employees [see “Amtrak extends vaccination deadline …,” Trains News Wire, Oct. 28, 2021]. The passenger railroad is also preparing for possible service reductions based on the level of employee compliance with the mandate.

The Alaska Railroad this week reversed a vaccine mandate that was imposed on its workforce last week. The railroad stands to lose federal funding, but is awaiting the outcome of legal challenges filed against the federal mandate before determining whether to proceed with its vaccination rules. Just over half of the state-owned railroad’s employees are vaccinated.

The Biden administration says its goal is to reduce the spread of COVID-19, which in turn will decrease worker absence, reduce labor costs, and improve the efficiency of contractors that perform work for the federal government.

COVID-19 infections and quarantines on Class I railroads peaked in the week ending Jan. 9, when 1,416 employees were infected and 2,684 were quarantined due to exposure to the virus, according to Federal Railroad Administration data. As of Oct. 16, the most recent data available, 750 workers were infected and 882 were quarantined.

Railroads have said that pockets of COVID-19 infections and quarantines periodically have affected operations due to crew shortages.

Rail labor unions, which criticized railroads for not providing enough personal protection equipment at the onset of the pandemic, have filed suit against UP’s vaccine mandate. NS has filed a lawsuit in an effort to block legal action by rail labor unions.

— Updated at 11:50 a.m. CDT on Oct. 28 with new information from Amtrak

17 thoughts on “Norfolk Southern warns that COVID-19 vaccine mandate poses risks to service (updated)

  1. I hope all those conductors and engineers who refuse to get the vaccine realize the next steps. First they’ll be terminated. Then the railroads will use the labor shortage to impose 1 person crews.

  2. it should be a personal choice whether you get jabbed or not, not the government or your employer. companies that cave to the government are nothing more than dictator ships. I would encourage all employees to walk off the job regardless of your jab status. this needs to happen in all companies and tell dictator Biden where to stick it.

    1. No one is forcing anyone to get the vaccine. But if an employer requires that it’s employees get vaccinated in order to keep their jobs then then they have a CHOICE to make.

  3. Had the COVID pandemic and then the vaccine not been made into a political football we wouldn’t have had mandates in the first place. I’ve had both a younger brother and several close friends who have died from covid. All after the vaccine was widely available. Two of those including my brother had young children. And they were all swayed by political rhetoric to not get vaccinated. They left their families without husbands and fathers, sons and brothers. They weren’t going to let anyone tell them what to do. I wish there had been mandates from the start of this pandemic. And I’ll guarantee you, knowing how much my brother loved his family, if he’d had a crystal ball and could have seen the future, he’d have gotten the shot. Unfortunately crystal balls don’t exist. Maybe if there had been a mandate he and my buddies would still be here.

  4. It’s not just the railroads. Some 20 % of the adult working population is not vaccinated, and a large percentage of them will not get vaccinated. There will be worse labor shortages everywhere, railroads, truckers, warehouses, hospitals and nursing homes,… For a government that’s ‘following the science’ it’s odd there are no exemptions for people who have had the virus; they are better protected than the vaccinated.

    1. Exactly true. More and more it’s coming out that vaccine resistors aren’t all nutcase wackos. Many of them have what they consider legit reasons not to take the vaccine. Even if most people disagree with the resistors, how is it up to majority vote?

  5. Why worry about a DOD contract. This administration’s DOD isn’t going to do anything militarily unless it will be to reduce the ranks.
    Mark just remember that vaccinated people can still spread Covid and they can still get it and die. Ask Gen Powell.
    Viruses have always mutated and no vaccine will ever be 100% and yes I am vaccinated and boostered but I am not invincible.
    The President is out campaigning for people and he is unmasked. Seems fair.
    Fauci says wear a mask so the engineer or conductor should be safe right?

  6. Hey Mr. Shoemaker, if all that was at stake was the vax resistors getting good and sick, maybe “long COVID”, and Darwin Awards, fine. That’s their choice to play Russian Roulette with their own lives. But that’s not what’s at stake and you damn well know it! You know full well that the unvaccinated can carry the virus, be asymptomatic, and infect others who have done all they can to protect themselves. You have the freedum to kill your self. You don’t have the freedom to sicken or kill me. No freight locomotive engineer or conductor should have to share the close quarters of a engine cab for up to 12 hours with the other guy or woman unvaxxed.

    1. Substitute “fully vaxxed” for “vax resistors” and the statement would still be completely accurate.

  7. It’s time that corporate America stand up for the law. We all hear about it’s the law to require the vaccine. If so please reference exactly chapter and verse. There is no legal authority for this. There is no OSHA regulations. There is no Federal legal authority for any of this. Tyranny.

    1. Exactly. OSHA does not extend to who can be hired. We have had tyranny since CXOVID began. Once democracy is lost it’s difficult to get it back.

  8. I think we’re headed toward a general strike over the mandates. It’s clear that the nationwide Democrat Party flat-out lied when it said there would be no mandates – now mandates are expanding like the plague, from elementary schools on up.

    I’m vaccinated. Every adult in my family is vaccinated. If my grandson lived in California – fortunately he does not – he’d be covered under the school mandate. That won’t happen. No way he’d get a vaccination which at his age would likely do more harm than good.

  9. For NS, at some point the combined costs of employees quitting, and hiring and training new employees will begin to exceed the benefits of doing business with the Department of Defense. It may be cheaper to notify the DOD of their intention to terminate their contract and swallow whatever penalty(s) that may be assessed?

  10. I saw a post from Railroad Workers United on Facebook that stated that the T&E Unions representing trainmen/women on NS are seeking authorization under the Railway Labor Act to stage a strike over the draconian measures that have been implemented since PTC started along with working without a new contract for over 2 years. After stating a few days ago that all employees would have to get vaccinated or else, maybe Squires had second thoughts and decided that he’d better tone it down a bit and not throw another log on the fire. Plus, I kinda doubt that there’s many in today’s management that know how to run a train.

  11. Add Genesee & Wyoming to the list of Railroads strong arming their EEs to get the jab. If you’ve never heard of them, their shortline RRs and sevice ports, industry’s and a lot of e businesses Class 1s don’t want to touch. They are your customer service railroad and it’s going to be a tragedy when their EEs walk.
    Their executives are hypocrites and not even vaxxed.. but are sure quick to force it on their EES.

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