Class I railroads pressed about service, furloughs

Surface Transportation Board, Federal Railroad Administration and labor unions ask for assurances

By Joanna Marsh for

The Surface Transportation Board (STB) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) Administrator Ron Batory have sent letters to the CEOs of all seven Class I railroads asking them to resolve service issues that have arisen during the months of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Their letters come as two labor groups — the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-TD) — question the railroads’ practices and methods on recalling furloughed employees.

The STB and FRA letter describes how the agencies have been alerted about recent service problems, such as missed industrial switches and excessively late or annulled trains because of crew availability issues. 

They ask the railroads to ensure there is enough staffing and resources to meet anticipated demand. STB and FRA also want the railroads to alert their customers of any service issues so that their customers can plan accordingly.

“As you know, with both increasing intermodal and carload volumes and a projected robust harvest fast approaching, railroad employee availability, together with sufficient equipment resourcing, is essential for safe, fluid rail service in support of the nation’s economic recovery,” Monday’s letter said. 

“Given the challenges related to changing demand patterns and operating conditions, increased communication and transparency with rail shippers is especially important to ensure they have the information needed to plan their businesses and meet their own customers’ needs. It is our expectation that there will be heightened emphasis on improving employee availability, equipment resources and robust communication to quickly resolve service issues as they arise and to prevent them from becoming widespread,” the letter continued.

Labor groups question furlough practices

STB and FRA’s letter to the Class I railroads comes as two labor groups allude to challenges that have arisen in recalling furloughed employees.

The railroads had trimmed headcount levels to account for the decline in rail volumes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a joint statement last Friday, BLET and SMART-TD said they received reports from their members describing how some of the methods to recall furloughed workers aren’t following collective bargaining provisions, thus putting unemployment benefits in jeopardy. Furloughed workers receive unemployment benefits through the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA), which is administered by the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board.

The labor groups contend that some recalled furloughed employees have been sidelined for a second time after they’ve reported back to work, thus affecting how RUIA benefits are administered. 

“Just when one thinks the carriers can’t possibly stoop any lower, they try to game the RUIA system to their benefit,” said BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy R. Ferguson. “Since RUIA tax rates are experience-based, maybe the carriers are looking to minimize next year’s hit. But cutting their losses on the backs of union members and their families in this fashion is reprehensible.”

The Class I railroads are being asked about rail service and furloughing practices. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

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