‘What Choice Do I Have?’ Freight Train Conductors Are Forced to Work Tired, Sick, and Stressed

Workers have had to choose between work and attending funerals for loved ones, parenting their kids, and going to the doctor, 45 BNSF employees told Motherboard.

By Aaron Gordon for vice.com

Two weeks ago, a BNSF freight train conductor, who asked not to be named so he could speak freely about his experience, fell asleep on duty while the train was moving. He knows it’s a fireable offense, not to mention an unsafe practice that potentially endangers not only his own life but those of others near the tracks. But he couldn’t help it.He fell asleep, he told Motherboard, because of the punishing attendance policy the railroad enacted in February called Hi Viz, a points system that requires workers to be on-call upwards of 90 percent of their lives, depriving them of any semblance of a non-work life. (The worker provided Motherboard with recent documents verifying his recent work schedule.) At the start of February, workers got 30 points. Taking time off almost always costs them between two and 15 points. They can only earn points back by being available for work with 90 minutes’ notice for 14 consecutive days, meaning they can’t go out of town, schedule doctors appointments, or go to a movie. Use all 30 points and they get suspended and given 15 more points. Use those 15 points and they get suspended even longer and given their last 15 points. Use those and they’re fired.

In the week leading up to him falling asleep at the switch, the conductor slept an average of five hours or less each night largely due to a hectic work schedule and stress around when the next call to work would come, he said. Prior to Hi Viz, if he was too tired to work, he could “lay off” in freight rail parlance, meaning take himself off the list of people available to work for 24 hours, giving him necessary time to recuperate. But now he cannot, because it would cost him too many points.

“With this point system, I have to choose between getting rest with my off time or spending a day with my family,” the conductor said. So, he tried to work through the exhaustion, taking over 600 mg of caffeine pills—about six cups of coffee’s worth—but it didn’t help. The gentle rolling of the freight train moving along in the middle of the night lulled him to sleep. Freight train conductors can’t listen to music, books on tape, or do anything else that could potentially help them stay awake. Each freight train has two crew members, a conductor and an engineer. The conductor said he was “pretty sure” the engineer fell asleep too.What makes this worker’s story noteworthy is not that a freight rail conductor fell asleep while on duty, as much of a safety hazard as that is. It is that the conditions which resulted in his extreme fatigue are by design in the modern freight rail industry and all too typical of the daily experiences of the people responsible for running trains safely. After we published our first story about Hi Viz, Motherboard heard from 45 current and former BNSF conductors, engineers, and their families about what it’s like to work under Hi Viz or be married to someone who is. Motherboard granted them anonymity so they could speak publicly about the issue without fearing reprisals from the company. 

To a person, they spoke of the same difficulties living under the Hi Viz scheduling system. Basic needs like sleeping, going to the doctor, and seeing their spouses and kids now seem to them impossible tasks. Workers have had to choose between going to a relative’s funeral, causing them to lose so many points they won’t have any wiggle room for future emergencies, or skipping it and going into work. Stress and fatigue levels were regularly reported as at all-time highs, both by workers themselves and their families. And many worry about the safety of the railroads, which are a major method of transportation of hazardous materials.Conductors and engineers do not have set work schedules. The actual scheduling method for the workers who run the freight trains is surprisingly complicated, with lots of caveats and exceptions for specific conditions. But, generally speaking, there is a board of all the workers available to staff trains at each yard. As trains come in, they are called in order the workers appear on the board. After a worker completes a shift, their name goes to the bottom of the board. Once a worker “lays off” their name comes off the board for 24 hours then goes back to the bottom. Because trains are made available in an unpredictable manner and workers will wait to lay off until their name goes towards the top of the board to maximize time off, it is highly unpredictable when a worker will be called in next. 

Motherboard sent a detailed list of questions to BNSF. A company spokesperson responded “In our view, there are inaccuracies in the anecdotes you have provided to us” but did not specify what those inaccuracies are. The spokesperson referenced a previous statement provided to Motherboard—which BNSF has provided to all outlets seeking comment on the Hi Viz policy in recent months—and said it will address the attendance policy at a federal government oversight hearing later this month.Conductors and engineers are represented by two unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation Union – Transportation Division (SMART-TD). These workers have been in contract negotiations with BNSF for three years. Before Hi Viz went into effect, BNSF sued to block the unions from striking over Hi Viz. A federal judge agreed, blocking the unions from taking any action including picketing, slow downs, sick outs to protest the new policy, meaning the unions can’t do anything to fight it. Even some managers, who do not have to work under the Hi Viz policy and get three days off for every three days worked, are disturbed by what they’re seeing. “It’s fucked up what’s expected from our railroaders,” one manager told Motherboard. “It makes no sense to work here anymore.”

Parenting by FaceTime

Dozens of BNSF workers stressed the impact Hi Viz is having on their family life. In essence, they no longer have one.“We now have no life outside of the railroad,” Kevin, who has worked as both a conductor and engineer, told Motherboard. Workers are finding it difficult to manage family tragedies. Jay had to use 15 of his 30 points to attend his brother-in-law’s funeral. Only brothers, sisters, parents, children, spouses, and spouse’s parents are covered under BNSF’s Death In Family policy, according to a copy of the Hi Viz attendance program guidelines obtained by Motherboard, and even such a death results in only three days off, which is generally not enough time to mourn, make arrangements, and hold a funeral. As a result, he couldn’t take days off for his kids’ birthdays or his 20th wedding anniversary. He would have to work three straight months without any scheduled days off to make those points back.“Literally, I risked losing my job to comfort my sister and her kids after her husband’s suicide,” Jay told Motherboard. “It’s unconscionable.”A conductor named Jason told Motherboard of another situation in which BNSF workers had to choose between a funeral and work. His best friend whom he had known all his life was lying in a hospital bed dying of liver and kidney failure. His best friend’s brother also worked for BNSF as an engineer, Jason told Motherboard. While they sat in the hospital room comforting their dying brother and friend, his best friend’s brother was called into work. He decided to go into work because he didn’t have enough points to take that day off and the day of the funeral. He was at work when his brother died the next morning.

BNSF freight train
A BNSF TRAIN CARRYING OIL TANKERS DERAILED IN WASHINGTON STATE IN 2020. WORKERS ARE WORRIED MORE CRASHES LIKE THIS WILL OCCUR UNDER THE NEW ATTENDANCE POLICY. CREDIT: DAVID RYDER / STRINGER VIA GETTY.

Another engineer told Motherboard she is “constantly fatigued and just can’t seem to get enough rest,” but despite having 28 points is afraid to use any of them in case something happens to her elderly parents, in which case she would almost certainly need to burn them. But even just being a good parent or spouse is proving a challenge, too. “As it is now, I haven’t seen my family for two months and am contemplating giving up 8.5 years and quitting altogether,” one engineer told Motherboard. Another worker, a conductor, said he hasn’t seen his son “while he’s awake” in three weeks. He also missed his son’s parent-teacher conference and expects to miss his anniversary and wife’s birthday coming up.“Now I parent via FaceTime,” Richard, an engineer, told Motherboard. “I have left my wife to be more than a part-time single parent. I no longer go my children’s practices, games, or scouting events.” He said his kids no longer bother to ask when their dad is coming home. Workers who are divorced and have a split custody arrangement with their exes are also finding Hi Viz impossible to work with. One BNSF worker named Steve said under the old guidelines it was generally possible to see his kids for at least a portion of three weekends a month. But now, he can’t.

“Taking a weekend day off (now including Fridays) would equate to four points each week, and I would exhaust my bank of 30 points in eight weeks,” Steve told Motherboard. “So now there’s times where I’ll go weeks without seeing my children, because I don’t have the flexibility to manage my days as freely as I used to. My family is directly suffering due to this new Hi Viz attendance policy, and it’s either going to result in my firing, or my kids growing apart from me.”Another worker said, “My kids will grow up with me being an absent father which hurts. A lot.”

“What choice do I have?”

In the early morning of February 4, just after Hi Viz went into effect, an engineer named Matt felt sick. By 5 AM he was throwing up and it was clear to him he couldn’t work. Instead of simply calling out sick like most workers do, he entered a byzantine bureaucratic dead end that resulted in him having to run a freight train.First, Matt tried to take what’s called a “Personal Leave Day” which would not cost him any points. Engineers get three personal days per year, with two additional days per year for every five years of service after that, up to 11 days for those with 20 years or more of service. But actually taking them off can prove challenging. But that has to be approved by the automated attendance system, which only allocates a certain number of vacation and personal leave days for each role in each location. As a result, workers typically need to take these days off months in advance to get approved. So, Matt’s request was declined. He then tried to take a vacation day, but that was also declined for similar reasons.

So Matt looked at the board showing how soon he could expect to be called into work. He saw he was next on the list. If he got called before he got permission to take time off, he’d be docked 15 points for not showing up.Under the old system, the local superintendent could, in effect, give workers like Matt permission to take sick days without punishment and override the computer. But under Hi Viz, they no longer can. At 7:30 AM, Matt was called into the next shift. At 8:15 AM he got up and got sick again. “My wife asked if I was really going in. I responded with, what choice do I have?’”On that shift, Matt told Motherboard he suffered from lack of sleep due to being up all night throwing up, dehydration, and general illness. “I had a hard time staying awake and constantly lost focus.” 

GettyImages-1230267649.jpg
A BNSF TRAIN CARRYING OIL TANKERS DERAILED IN WASHINGTON STATE IN 2020. WORKERS ARE WORRIED MORE CRASHES LIKE THIS WILL OCCUR UNDER THE NEW ATTENDANCE POLICY. CREDIT: DAVID RYDER / STRINGER VIA GETTY.

Other BNSF workers told Motherboard similar stories about how little the Hi Viz policy accommodates illnesses or medical appointments. One provided screenshots of conversations through the company’s HR portal that instructed him to use vacation and paid leave days when they’re feeling sick, even though these typically have to be scheduled 60 or more days in advance. The only other option is to take a points hit, punishing workers for getting sick. Many opt to go to work sick or exhausted instead.“I am personally up for 30-plus hours at least three times a month running on nothing but naps,” a conductor named Richard said. 

“I’m sick tonight, but we do not have sick days so I expect my phone to ring at midnight for an all-nighter,” an engineer named Jay told Motherboard. “I’m just going to try to not get too close to my coworkers.”Another worker, who asked Motherboard not to use his first name because of the nature of his story, said Hi Viz has prevented him from seeking counseling for an incident that happened on the job. After working 11 weeks straight, a woman attempted suicide by standing in front of his train. The company gave him three days off, but he found the event traumatic and is seeking counseling. However, he has been unable to schedule counseling appointments due to the demanding nature of Hi Viz scheduling. Instead, he worked 23 straight days after going back to work.“I am forced to make a choice of going to work tired so I can regain my mental health or do everything I can to get rest so I can go to work safely, but then not regain my mental health,” he told Motherboard. “And nobody will do anything about it.” His only other choice is to take unpaid medical leave. “I should be able to schedule counseling sessions on scheduled days off like a normal person who matters,” he said, “but I can’t with Hi Viz.”

“Stress levels…are at an all-time high”

The combination of lack of sleep, not seeing their families, constant work or being on call for work, and worrying over basic things like how to fit doctors appointments into their lives is resulting in high stress levels.“Stress levels at every terminal I’ve worked in are at an all-time high,” a conductor named Ken said. And at least some workers and their families fear there could be catastrophic consequences.One conductor’s wife fears not only for her husband’s safety but also the people and natural resources near the tracks. Her husband works in Colorado where the tracks wind around mountain passes along beautiful rivers and canyons. The trains also travel through downtown Denver.“BNSF runs a lot of trains with highly combustible and toxic chemicals,” she said. “Of course the attendance policy is horrendous but the catastrophic environmental impact a train derailment would have here should be of concern of everyone.”

But at least a few workers have a different concern. They worry Hi Viz and similar policies that push workers to their physical and emotional limits will result in someone snapping. “A few years ago, a carman (they’re the mechanics who repair railroad cars) in Klamath Falls, Oregon, walked into his boss’ office and shot him,” one conductor told Motherboard. “Almost everyday, in a conversation with the engineer I’m working with that day, or in a conversation with other railroaders in a yard office, someone will say, ‘I’m surprised we haven’t had another Klamath Falls, yet.’ Generally, the reply, after someone says that, is, ‘I’ve been thinking the same thing. I hate to say it, but I think you’re right.’”

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