Transportation union wants federal action against Class 1 railroads’ attendance policies

AFL-CIO subsidiary calls on multiple agencies to step in

By Joanna Marsh for

The Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO is urging federal agencies to rein in Class I railroads’ attendance policies, which TTD says force union employees to work long hours without adequate rest.

TTD wants the U.S. Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Transportation to determine whether the attendance policies should incur statutory or regulatory violations, according to a new policy briefissued by the group, whose leaders are meeting in Washington this week to formalize TTD’s policy and regulatory agenda.

If the policies don’t violate the law, TTD wants the Federal Railroad Administration to address “degrading fatigue conditions,” including through the promulgation of a forthcoming fatigue management plan rulemaking.

FRA confirmed that it is working on drafting a final rule, but no timeline has been established.

The statements by the union coalition, which consists of 37 transportation-related unions, comes as the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the International Union of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD) have tussled in federal court with BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B) over BNSF’s revised attendance policy, which took effect in February. 

BNSF has argued that the “Hi Viz” or high-visibility attendance policy provides transparency and clarity over when absences occur: “BNSF’s new system will provide more predictability for our train crews while also providing more reliable crew availability, which is essential to meeting our customers’ expectations and the demands posed by an increasingly competitive global supply chain. Our program is designed to provide ample time for obligations outside of work, including planned vacations, personal leave days and unplanned absences while ensuring that we have sufficient employees available to work.”

But the unions argue that the policy is too restrictive. The unions jostled with BNSF in federal court recently because the unions wanted to strike over the attendance policy. The federal court prevented the unions from striking. Now the unions are seeking binding arbitration as a way to address their concerns about BNSF’s new attendance policy.

“Hi-Viz and similar policies serve to do nothing more than increase demands of an already exhausted workforce. For the dignity of these rail workers, their quality of life, and the safety of our nation’s freight railroad network, they must be abandoned and reconsidered,” TTD’s policy briefing said.

The federal government has previously examined railroad worker fatigue, but its findings were never addressed or implemented, TTD contends. The DOT produced a report on railroad fatigue over 20 years ago suggesting that work schedules are incompatible with normal circadian rhythms and that staffing limitations require extensive overtime. Meanwhile, Congress’ FAST Act from over seven years ago called for pilot programs that would measure the positive impacts of more scheduled shifts on safety and fatigue.

But TTD asserts that no Class I railroad has agreed to participate in a pilot program. 

“The demands on these employees have become increasingly unsustainable, and action must be taken,” TTD said.

The coalition also called for BNSF and other Class I railroads to abandon unreasonable attendance policies in favor of one that balances the scheduling needs of the railroad with the need of the workforce to have adequate rest.

TTD argues that worker fatigue is “one of the single greatest threats to railroad safety” since worker fatigue can result in an inability to concentrate, reduced reaction times and decreased situational awareness. These conditions are especially troublesome when employees are tasked with operating freight trains carrying explosive, radioactive or flammable cargoes, TTD said.

The industry practice has been to place many railroad employees, such as train engineers and conductors, in on-call shifts. But recent efforts to cut workforce levels, as well as the ongoing supply chain congestion exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, have caused railroads such as BNSF and Union Pacific to stretch employees too thin, according to TTD.

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