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


With an overwhelming bipartisan vote on Thursday, the Senate forced itself between national freight rail roads and their unions — an action that averted a 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 paid sick leave and President Biden signed it, sticking with the terms that mirrored what the White House brokered in September — a roughly 24 percent pay increase by 2024, more flexibility to take time off for doctor’s appointments, and a paid personal day. The terms did not include new, dedicated time off for illness.

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

But 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 rail carriers no longer have enough workers to cover for absent colleagues because companies in recent years have switched 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 saw trains waiting for long stretches before they enough load to justify departing — rail companies now have more trains carrying a mix of goods on a set schedule. Fixed scheduling allows companies to use the same crew more often that they could under the old system.

Between November 2018 and 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 increased 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 has left 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.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Brendan Brannon, 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, arguing that “all rail employees have some form of paid sick leave.”

Association of American Railroads spokeswoman Jessica Kahanek pointed to a list that includes several leave options, such as a system in which sick employees can temporarily remove themselves a list 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, he said, the long-term sickness benefit is meant for more serious illnesses or injuries, 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 — rail road 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 are 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.”