The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why paid sick leave became a big issue in rail labor talks

Unions say rail carriers cut too much in the name of efficiency, leaving them with too few workers to cover for absent colleagues.

A Union Pacific rail terminal Friday in Salt Lake City. (George Frey/Bloomberg News)

With an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote on Thursday, the Senate forced itself between freight railroad companies and their unions — an action that averted a national rail strike and potential economic catastrophe, but which failed to provide workers with a component they aggressively sought: paid sick leave.

On Wednesday, the House approved two versions of a deal meant to stave off a Dec. 9 strike by rail workers. One echoed the recommendations that union leaders and the White House agreed to in September. The other, pushed by liberal Democrats, included seven paid sick days for rail workers.

The Senate ultimately approved the option without the added sick leave, and President Biden signed it. The terms mirror those in the agreement the White House brokered in September, including a roughly 24 percent pay increase by 2024, more flexibility to take time off for doctor’s appointments, and a paid personal day.

After forcing rail deal, Biden works to smooth over labor relations

So why was paid sick leave such a sticking point — and why didn’t workers get it?

Rail carriers have said they need to maintain their attendance policies to ensure adequate staffing. Some industry experts and union officials say the companies no longer have enough workers to cover for absent colleagues because of the switch in recent years to “precision scheduled railroading,” a system designed to improve efficiency and cut costs. Instead of running trains that carried just one type of product — which left trains waiting for long stretches before they had enough load to depart — rail companies now have more trains carrying a mix of goods on a set schedule. Fixed scheduling allows them to use the same crew more often than they could have under the old system.

President Biden on Dec. 1 defended the deal that he negotiated to avoid a rail worker strike and said he would continue to push for paid leave for all workers. (Video: The Washington Post)

From November 2018 to December 2020, the rail industry lost 40,000 jobs, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau described precision scheduling as possibly the “most widely accredited reason for the decrease in rail transportation employment,” although the pandemic, uncertainties in trade and a decline U.S. coal usage also hurt the industry.

Wall Street at the time cheered the transition to a new system. In 2019, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific stocks rose 30 percent, and shares of Kansas City Southern jumped more than 60 percent.

But the labor force cuts “led to this kind of crisis of work-life balance,” said Todd Vachon, a Rutgers University labor professor who sees short staffing as “a model of maximizing profits to have high returns for shareholders.”

And unions say precision scheduled railroading leaves little room to give workers the benefits they need.

“There is a direct connection to these business decisions that the railroads have made — either PSR by itself or just these attendance policies that’s an offshoot of PSR — forcing people to work more than any average American worker wants to do or can do,” said Dennis Pierce, the national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, an influential union that narrowly voted to ratify the White House proposal.

Brendan Branon, chairman of the National Railway Labor Conference, who represented the industry at the bargaining table, rejected the idea that paid sick leave represented a sticking point in labor talks. “All rail employees have some form of paid sick leave,” he said in a statement to The Post.

A spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads, Jessica Kahanek, pointed to a list that includes several leave options, such as a system in which sick employees can temporarily remove themselves from a roster of available workers, as well as time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act. And all employees have a long-term sickness benefit that can pay a portion of the worker’s income for up to 26 weeks, the rail association said.

But time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act is unpaid, according to the Department of Labor. And the system that allows employees to remove themselves from availability is unpaid, union lawyer Richard Edelman said. Workers also could be disciplined for using it, he added.

Moreover, the long-term sickness benefit is meant for more serious illnesses or injuries, he said, and would not help employees who get the flu, for example, or need emergency dental surgery. “All of those things that are one- or two-day things — railroad employees don’t have that,” Edelman said.

Tony Hatch, a longtime industry analyst, said the financial community wants a more constructive relationship between railroad management and their workers.

We don’t want to see semi-slave labor here,” he said. “We want to see a happy workforce because the railroads have terrific opportunity to recapture … market share.”

The negative effects of scheduled railroading and related staff reductions are a “boogeyman” that has been overblown, Hatch said. But he said that the system has made the industry more fragile and needs more flexibility to deal with emergency situations such as the coronavirus pandemic and sick workers.

“One of the things that you need to run a scheduled railroad is crew availability,” Hatch said. “And if people are quitting, you need to do something about that.

The rail labor conference’s Brannon said workers and companies must keep talking.

“While the bargaining round has concluded, conversations about bringing greater predictability and work-life balance for railroaders will continue,” he said.

Vachon, the labor professor, said that nothing should prevent rail companies from providing their employees with paid sick leave. He said it comes down to paying for more workers and maintaining a rotating pool of people to cover shifts while others are out.

“There’s nothing inherent about the railroad industry to make paid sick leave unsustainable,” he said, adding that rail workers in Europe have the benefit. “This idea that it’s not possible is really just a cop-out. … The companies are deciding how to spend their resources, and they’re spending the money to buy back their stocks and give dividends to shareholders rather than investing in their workers.”

Loading...