‘Completely demoralized’: US railroad workers pushed to the brink

Workers are under intense strain amid grueling schedules, union contract negotiations and an arcane attendance policy system

By Michael Sainato for theguardian.com

American railroad workers are criticizing a new restrictive attendance policy at one of the largest railroad freight networks in the US, as they experience grueling schedules and labor cuts in the midst of new union contract negotiations, which have hit an impasse, prompting federal mediation.

The Guardian spoke with several railroad trainmen and engineers who requested to remain anonymous as they are prohibited by their employer from speaking to the media.

On 1 February, BNSF Railway, one of the largest railroad freight networks in North America implemented a new point system attendance policy, criticized by workers and unions representing about 17,000 workers, for being more restrictive, incentivizing going to work fatigued or ill, and increasing threats of discipline.

One train engineer in the network’s Great Plains Region claimed they had to push back a medical procedure for a chronic illness to the summer, when they have vacation time off scheduled, as they would have used nearly all of their attendance points required for the time off needed for the procedure.

“We feel stabbed in the back, completely demoralized with the work we did through the pandemic, understanding the situation, going the extra mile, and doing what we’re asked to do, and then some without complaint,” said the worker.

The new attendance system appears arcane. Workers are allotted 30 career attendance points and docked several points for taking any days off, with points varying on the time of the week and days designated as high-impact days. Workers can get four points back after working uninterrupted for 14 days. Previously, workers were allotted five weekdays off a month and two weekend days off. Workers are continuously on call and have just over an hour to report to work when they are called in.

“Fatigue is a chronic issue with almost everyone I know and work with. We manage it so it doesn’t get too severe,” they added. “We’ve been struggling through the pandemic with fatigue, exhaustion, and we have no chance to even catch our breath.”

Despite the grueling work schedules, workers explained there is no room for error in the work they do given the important safety components of their job, such as transporting hazardous chemicals.

Workers are legally permitted to work a maximum of 12 hours operating a train, but the worker noted it often takes several additional hours for relief to arrive and to get to a hotel or terminal when away from home. While always on call, the work hours vary widely and often change on a moment’s notice, making it impossible for workers to adapt to healthy sleep schedules, having to piece together naps whenever possible while waiting to be called into work.

Workers say that even though high-impact days, such as various holidays including Super Bowl Sunday, are designated as seven attendance points, workers are not paid any additional pay for working those days.“You don’t know when they’re calling and they can call you at any time,” a worker said. “We’re still going through the pandemic, whether folks like to believe that or not, or abide by what’s going on or not, even though it’s lessened, you’re forcing folks to come to work sick because they’re scared to use points. You’re literally having them pick between ‘do you go to work sick and ill and not feeling well or do you save that time to be with your kids and your family?’”Another worker criticized the attendance policy, arguing it makes it even more difficult to take time off for medical appointments or to be able to take time off to spend with family as railroad workers spent most of their time away from home, waiting anywhere from 12 to 30 hours in a hotel room before being called back into work on a return trip to their home.

“There are 17,600 employees that work with this new attendance policy, and not one of them will tell you that it’s a good program at all. It’s completely unmanageable,” they said.Workers represented by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation unions mobilized and pushed for the right to strike over the new attendance policy, but a federal judge ruled the dispute was “minor” under the Railway Labor Act, meaning workers cannot legally strike over the policy.“This is a policy that, frankly, is just blind to the moment,” said Greg Regan, president of the transportation trades department, AFL-CIO, which represents 36 labor unions in the transportation industry. “They’re turning around and punishing their employees, because they’re faced with some of the challenges that they created themselves.”A worker reaches for absorbent pads as residual oil leaks from a train car being readied to be moved following a derailment in December 2020.Photograph: Elaine Thompson/AP

He argued staffing shortages and supply chain issues have been self-made in the industry, as drastic labor cuts have been implemented in recent years, reducing the workforce and lowering overall costs, while rail transportation companies have used the supply chain crisis to increase fees and make record profits.

The attendance policy change was implemented as workers have continued working through the pandemic via contract negotiations between 10 unions and over 30 railroad companies that have been ongoing since fall 2019 amid widespread labor cuts in the industry since 2017 where over 20% of staff have been cut under a new operating model.The industry is pushing to reduce two person rail crews, an engineer and a conductor, to one person crews, which unions and workers have criticized as a serious safety issue that will lead to an increase in train derailments, severely affecting communities around the country.“What the companies are offering at the bargaining table, you would think they’re facing declining revenue and decreasing profits, not recording the highest profit margin in the history of railroading,” Regan said. “It’s clear that the industry does not want to give an inch right now, and they want to continue to claw out as much profit as possible.”null

BNSF Railway, owned by billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, reported record profits in 2021, with operating income increasing 13.7% to $8.8bn.

A spokesperson for BNSF Railway argued the new attendance policy will provide more predictability for train crews and provide more reliable crew availability.

“Our program is designed to provide ample time for obligations outside work, including planned vacations, personal leave days and unplanned absences while ensuring that we have sufficient employees available to work,” a spokesperson said in an email. “Based on initial feedback, BNSF has already modified the program. We look forward to continuing to work with our employees to gather input and refine the program if needed. BNSF team members drive our success and we couldn’t deliver the nation’s goods without them. We understand that change can be an adjustment, but we believe we can adapt together to meet today’s competitive freight environment.”

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