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Rail unions rally for sick leave 

Railroad unions and their allies ramped up calls this week urging the Class I railroads to adopt sick leave policies for rank-and-file employees, culminating with Sen. Bernie Sanders warning that railroad heads could come to Washington and face a Senate hearing on the issue.

The calls come as eastern U.S. railroad CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) said this week that it is offering sick leave to maintenance-of-way workers and workers who inspect and repair rail cars, known as carmen. Union leaders also said they were rallying around the 30th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act.

“We are here today assembled to send a very strong message to the CEOs in the rail industry, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of the type of corporate greed we are seeing in that industry,” Sanders, I-Vt., said Thursday at a press conference to discuss sick leave. “At a time of record-breaking profits the industry can and must guarantee at least seven paid sick days to every rail worker in America. In the year 2023, that is not a whole lot to ask.”

Sanders was flanked by union leadership from SMART-TD, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes and the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department. He said he would call the heads of the railroads to come before Congress should the railroads not engage with the unions on sick leave. Sanders is chair of the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“If railroads themselves do not come to the table and negotiate an acceptable agreement to the unions, we are going to have the executives here in this committee room, and we surely will bring legislation to the floor,” Sanders said. 

He pointed out that providing seven paid sick days to rail workers would cost the entire industry $321 million, or less than 1.2% of the railroads’ profits in a single year.

Sanders expressed similar sentiments in a Wednesday letter addressed to all the CEOs of the Class I railroads — except CSX.

Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., joined Sanders at the press conference and said providing sick leave is “common sense.”

“When I heard that you didn’t have a guaranteed sick day, I wondered how could you get by with that in this day and age. You don’t know when you’re going to get sick. It’s going to be an issue on keeping employees long term,” Braun said.

He continued, “I’m hoping this solves itself through the network of common sense. Looks like it’s already happening. Kudos to everyone that brought it to the forefront. And I as a Main Street business owner will always weigh in on this stuff, because it shouldn’t be blue collar or white collar, it should be common sense.”

Adam West, secretary and treasurer of a SMART-TD chapter in Indiana, described the risks that locomotive engineers and train conductors can bring to a railroad if they work while sick.

“They have to make a decision [between] showing up to work not well rested [and] distracted, getting on a train of 10,000 tons [with] possibly some seriously hazardous materials on board, going through towns of just about every town in the United States, or they can face the wrath of the carrier’s attendance policy,” West said. “Depending on where you’re at on the attendance policy, marking off sick to go see a doctor sometimes takes three days. And if you’re at the end of your attendance policy there, you’re most likely going to skip your doctor’s appointment.”

Meanwhile, Eric Byer, president and CEO of the National Association of Chemical Distributors, said his appearance at Thursday’s press conference was to emphasize how having a stable workforce helps rail’s customers. 

“It’s really important to have qualified skilled employees the rail workers have at these locations so we can get those products, put them on trucks and off to the end users safely,” Byer said. “Without them, we are not going to be able to have a successful and vibrant supply chain, which we’ve been struggling with over the last few years.” 

The railroads do offer sick leave to craft employees. However, that benefit might not kick in until a prescribed number of absences. That structure of sick leave is a result of past negotiations between the railroads and the unions. 

But during the last three years, when the railroads didn’t have adequate staffing to maintain network capacity, it became harder for rank-and-file employees to take sick leave because, according to the unions, some Class I railroads adopted punitive attendance policies to ensure adequate staffing levels. The unions also argued that both inadequate staffing and the punitive attendance policies were outcomes of precision scheduled railroading, a method the Class I railroads adopted to streamline operations and cut costs. Thursday’s press conference estimated that rail companies cut workforce levels by about 30% in the last six years.

“Railroads cut jobs, furloughed employees, expanded work territories and asked for more with less. These practices stretch our members thin and made it even harder for them to plan their lives around their jobs,” said Doug VanderJagt, vice president for the east division for Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, at Thursday’s press conference. “It often gets lost that these people are not assets or cogs in a machine. They’re human beings. And what they are asking for is not a rogue idea.”

The issue of sick leave came to the head last fall, when members of several unions voted to reject their tentative collective bargaining agreements with the Class I railroads. The inability for both sides to come to an agreement for the new labor contract also raised concerns that a rail strike would take place.

To prevent the rail strike, Congress stepped in and passed bills requiring the unions adopt the new contracts. But when Congress took up the issue, there was legislation in the House and Senate that called upon the railroads to adopt sick leave policies. Sanders was a sponsor of one bill, and he and 70 congressional colleagues wrote a letter to Biden following the vote urging sick leave for rail workers. 

The railroads have said the absences during the COVID-19 pandemic and shifting employment dynamics contributed to worker shortages. A three-member board appointed by President Joe Biden last July when negotiations were stalled between the unions and the railroads had also recommended that sick leave not be addressed within the last round of collective bargaining.

“What we have been and are still trying to accomplish is to bring these billion dollar companies to the table to do the right thing. By working together with labor to provide our people with paid sick leave without attendance policy penalty, without reduction of pay or threat of future discipline, we can accomplish this, but we have to do it together — not on a quid pro quo basis, but simply because it is the right thing to do,” VanderJagt said.

In addition to Thursday’s press conference, the unions said earlier this week that they each passed a resolution calling for the need for sick leave, not only because workers’ health is important but also because of their “critical” role in the national and global supply chain. 

“All of Rail Labor is united and resolved to fight for paid sick leave for all Railroad Workers through collective bargaining or voluntary agreement, and that Rail Labor will further call upon all elected and appointed government officials and government agencies to pass a national paid sick leave law that covers all Railroad Workers with paid sick leave without penalty or punishment, and further call upon these government officials and agencies to explore additional safeguards through rule-making and regulations for paid sick leave for all Railroad Workers,” the resolution said.

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