Archive for the ‘Healthcare’ Category

United Rail Unions sue to block carriers from modifying Healthcare benefits without bargaining

Washington, D.C. (Aug. 7, 2020) — On August 5, 2020, 12 rail unions whose members and their families are covered by the NRC/UTU Plan and the Railroad Employees National Health and Welfare Plan filed suit against the nation’s Class I railroad carriers in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

The suit asks the court to force the carriers to bargain in good faith with the unions over mandatory subjects of bargaining. The involved issues have been the subject of collective bargaining for decades and are in fact part of the carriers’ bargaining notices served on November 1, 2019, pursuant to Section 6 of the Railway Labor Act (RLA). At issue are carrier attempts to restrict access to certain medications and to forcibly reconfigure health care networks.

The unions are: the American Train Dispatchers Association; the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen; the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes; the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen; the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Mechanical Division; the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Transportation Division; the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the National Conference of Fireman & Oilers District, Local 32BJ, SEIU; the Transportation Communications Union/IAM; and the Transport Workers Union.

The rail carriers are: BNSF Railway Company; Kansas City Southern Railway Company; CSX Transportation; Grand Trunk Western Railroad Company; Norfolk Southern Railway Company; Soo Line Railway Company; and Union Pacific Railway Company. Also named in the suit is the National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC), whose National Carriers’ Conference Committee (NCCC) is the designated bargaining agent of the railroads.

The unions have asked the court to:

  • issue a declaratory judgment that the carriers are obligated to bargain in good faith with the unions on proposed health and welfare changes in accordance with the collective bargaining procedures outlined under the RLA;
  • issue a declaratory judgment that health and welfare plan design changes are a mandatory subject of collective bargaining pursuant to the RLA;
  • issue a declaratory judgment that the NRLC may not force plan design changes upon its employees without the agreement of the unions, to be achieved through the mandatory dispute resolution process of the RLA;
  • issue an order enjoining the NRLC from trying to force these health and welfare changes via arbitration rather than addressing them in collective bargaining; and
  • issue an order requiring the NRLC to engage in good faith negotiations with the unions over their proposed health and welfare changes through the RLA’s major dispute resolution procedures.

The chief executives of the 12 unions issued the following statement concerning the lawsuit:

The railroads’ attempt to evade their legal obligation to bargain on these issues of great importance to our members has left us with no choice but to enforce these legal rights in court. If implemented without successfully negotiated application, the carriers’ proposals could be extremely harmful to our members and their families. Even more outrageous, the process they are attempting to impose would allow rail carriers to reduce employees’ access to medicines and doctors in the middle of a pandemic. When they should be rewarding the contributions of their essential employees with hazard pay, the rail carriers instead attempt to reduce medical benefits when they are needed most. Events like these are why railroad managers were labeled as “Robber Barons” over a century ago; their actions today are proof positive that the label still applies. Unfortunately for working class Americans, this is the way of many corporations across the country in Donald Trump’s America; essential employees are treated as expendable employees. We will not stand idly by while management attacks the core legal rights our members enjoy.

Updates will be provided as developments warrant.

Read this release in PDF form.
Read the case filing. (PDF)

RRB Q&A: Unemployment and Sickness Benefits for Railroad Employees

The Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) administers the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA), which provides two kinds of benefits for qualified railroaders: unemployment benefits for those who become unemployed but are ready, willing, and able to work; and sickness benefits for those who are unable to work because of sickness or injury. Sickness benefits are also payable to female rail workers for periods of time when they are unable to work because of health conditions related to pregnancy, miscarriage or childbirth. A new benefit year begins each July 1.

The following questions and answers describe these benefits, their eligibility requirements, and how to claim them. In addition, it details how the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, affects the RRB’s administration of benefits under the RUIA.

1.      What are the eligibility requirements for railroad unemployment and sickness benefits in July 2020?

To qualify for normal railroad unemployment or sickness benefits, an employee must have had railroad earnings of at least $4,012.50 in calendar year 2019, counting no more than $1,605 for any month. Those who were first employed in the rail industry in 2019 must also have at least five months of creditable railroad service in 2019.

Under certain conditions, employees who do not qualify on the basis of their 2019 earnings may still be able to receive benefits in the new benefit year. Employees with at least 10 years of service (120 or more months of service) who received normal benefits in the benefit year ending June 30, 2020, may be eligible for extended benefits, and employees with at least 10 years of service (120 or more months of service) might qualify for accelerated benefits if they have rail earnings of at least $4,137.50 in 2020, not counting earnings of more than $1,655 a month. (Please see Question 4 for information on provisions for extended unemployment benefits under the CARES Act.)

In order to qualify for extended unemployment benefits, a claimant must not have voluntarily quit work without good cause and not have voluntarily retired. To qualify for extended sickness benefits, a claimant must not have voluntarily retired and must be under age 65.

To be eligible for accelerated benefits, a claimant must have 14 or more consecutive days of unemployment or sickness; not have voluntarily retired or, if claiming unemployment benefits, quit work without good cause; and, when claiming sickness benefits, be under age 65.

2.      What if I’m not eligible for railroad unemployment benefits under the criteria listed in Question 1?

You may be eligible for benefits under a new temporary federal program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), which was created under the CARES Act. In general, PUA provides up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to individuals not eligible for regular unemployment compensation or extended benefits, including those who have exhausted all rights to such benefits. The PUA program is administered by individual states, not the RRB. For eligibility information, and to find the application process in each state, please visit careeronestop.org, and under the Find Local Help tab, select Unemployment Benefits Finder.

3.      What is the daily benefit rate payable in the new benefit year beginning July 1, 2020?

Almost all employees will qualify for the maximum daily benefit rate of $80. Benefits are generally payable for the number of days of unemployment or sickness over four in 14-day claim periods, which yields $800 for each two full weeks of unemployment or sickness. Sickness benefits payable for the first 6 months after the month the employee last worked are subject to Tier I Railroad Retirement payroll taxes, unless benefits are being paid for an on-the-job injury.

Claimants should be aware that as a result of a sequestration order under the Budget Control Act of 2011, the RRB will reduce unemployment and sickness benefits by 5.9 percent through September 30, 2020. As a result, the total maximum amount payable in a 2-week period covering 10 days of unemployment or sickness will be $752.80. The maximum amount payable for sickness benefits subject to Tier I payroll taxes of 7.65 percent will be $695.21 over two weeks. It is expected that sequestration will force a 5.7 percent reduction in unemployment and sickness benefits beginning October 1, 2020. Future reductions, should they occur, will be calculated based on applicable law.

In addition, under the CARES Act, the amount of an unemployment benefit is increased by $1,200 per 2-week period. This increased amount, which is not subject to sequestration, is applied to any 2-week registration periods that began on or after April 1, 2020, through July 31, 2020. (Sequestration is not applied to benefit payments issued under the CARES Act.) The CARES Act includes a separate appropriation of $425 million to pay for this added “recovery benefit.” If this fund is exhausted, the new provision will no longer apply.

4.      How long are these benefits payable?

Normal unemployment or sickness benefits are each payable for up to 130 days (26 weeks) in a benefit year. The total amount of each kind of benefit which may be paid in the new benefit year cannot exceed the employee’s railroad earnings in calendar year 2019, counting earnings up to $2,073 per month.

If normal benefits are exhausted, extended benefits are payable for up to 65 days (during 7 consecutive 14-day claim periods) to employees with at least 10 years of service (120 or more cumulative service months).

The CARES Act also authorizes payment of extended unemployment benefits to rail workers who received unemployment benefits from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020. Under the legislation, railroad workers with less than 10 years of service may be eligible for up to 65 days of extended benefits within 7 consecutive 2-week registration periods. Workers with 10 or more years of railroad service, who were previously eligible for up to 65 days in extended benefits, may now receive benefits for up to 130 days within 13 consecutive 2-week registration periods. No extended benefit period under this provision will begin after December 31, 2020.

5.      What is the waiting period requirement for unemployment and sickness benefits?

There is a 7-day waiting period requirement, prior to any benefits becoming payable under the RUIA. During the first 14-day claim period, benefits are payable for every day claimed in excess of seven days. Subsequent claims are paid for the number of days of unemployment or sickness over four in each 14-day registration period. Initial sickness claims must also begin with four consecutive days of sickness. If an employee has at least five days of unemployment or five days of sickness in a 14-day period, he or she should still file for benefits in order to satisfy the waiting period for the current benefit year. Separate waiting periods are required for unemployment and sickness benefits. However, only one seven-day waiting period is generally required during any period of continuing unemployment or sickness, even if that period continues into a subsequent benefit year.

Under the CARES Act, the 7-day waiting period required before railroad workers can receive unemployment or sickness benefits is temporarily eliminated. This applies to any 14-day registration period that began on or after March 28, 2020, and ends on or before December 31, 2020. (Please note that this is the only provision of the CARES Act that applies to both unemployment and sickness benefits.) Employees who previously submitted claims during this time and were charged with the 7-day waiting period will receive retroactive payments of these additional monies once our systems are ready to pay them. The legislation provides $50 million to cover the cost of eliminating the waiting period, and, as with the recovery benefit paid under the CARES Act, if this fund is exhausted, the new provision will no longer apply.

6.      Are there special waiting period requirements if unemployment is due to a strike?

If a worker is unemployed because of a strike conducted in accordance with the Railway Labor Act, benefits are not payable for days of unemployment during the first 14 days of the strike, but benefits are payable during subsequent 14-day periods.

If a strike is in violation of the Railway Labor Act, unemployment benefits are not payable to employees participating in the strike. However, employees not among those participating in such an illegal strike, but who are unemployed on account of the strike, may receive benefits after the first two weeks of the strike.

While a benefit year waiting period cannot count toward a strike waiting period, the 14-day strike waiting period may count as the benefit year waiting period if a worker subsequently becomes unemployed for reasons other than a strike later in the benefit year.

7.      Can employees in train and engine service receive unemployment benefits for days when they are standing by or laying over between scheduled runs?

No, not if they are standing by or laying over between regularly assigned trips or they missed a turn in pool service.

8.      Can extra-board employees receive unemployment benefits between jobs?

Yes, but only if the miles and/or hours they actually worked were less than the equivalent of normal full-time work in their class of service during the 14-day claim period. Entitlement to benefits would also depend on the employee’s earnings.

9.      How would an employee’s earnings in a claim period affect his or her eligibility for unemployment benefits?

If a claimant’s earnings for days worked, and/or days of vacation, paid leave, or other leave in a 14-day registration period are more than a certain indexed amount, no benefits are payable for any days of unemployment in that period. That registration period, however, can be used to satisfy the waiting period.

Earnings include pay from railroad and non-railroad work, as well as part-time work and self-employment. Earnings also include pay that an employee would have earned except for failure to mark up or report for duty on time, or because he or she missed a turn in pool service or was otherwise not ready or willing to work. For the benefit year that begins July 2020, the amount is $1,605, which corresponds to the base year monthly compensation amount used in determining eligibility for benefits in each year. Also, even if an earnings test applies on the first claim in a benefit year, this will not prevent the first claim from satisfying the waiting period in a benefit year.

Earnings of $15 or less per day from work which is substantially less than full-time and not inconsistent with the holding of normal full-time employment may be considered subsidiary remuneration and may not prevent payment of any days in a claim. However, a claimant must report all full and part-time work on each claim, regardless of the amount of earnings, so the RRB can determine if the work affects benefits.

10.    How does a person apply for and claim unemployment benefits?

Employees can apply for and claim unemployment benefits online or by mail. Individuals who have established an account through myRRB at RRB.gov can log in and file their applications and their biweekly claims online. Employees are encouraged to establish their accounts while still working to expedite the filing process for future unemployment benefits, and for access to other online services.

To apply by mail, claimants must obtain an Application for Unemployment Benefits (Form UI-1) from RRB.gov, or their labor organization or railroad employer. The completed application should be mailed to the local RRB office as soon as possible and, in any case, must be filed within 30 days from the date the claimant became unemployed, or the first day for which he or she wishes to claim benefits. Benefits may be lost if the application is filed late. Claimants who know in advance that they will be filing an unemployment application or claim late should include a signed statement explaining why they are unable to meet the required time frame.

Persons can find the address of the RRB office serving their area by visiting RRB.gov and clicking on Field Office Locator, or by calling the agency toll-free at 1-877-772-5772 and selecting the appropriate option from the automated menu.

The local RRB field office reviews the completed application, whether it was submitted online or by mail, and notifies the claimant’s current railroad employer, and base-year employer, if different. The employer has the right to provide information about the benefit application.

After processing the application, biweekly claim forms are made available on the RRB’s website, or are mailed to the claimant, as long as he or she remains unemployed and eligible for benefits. Claim forms should be signed and sent on or after the last day of the claim. This can be done online or by mail. The completed claim must be received by the RRB within 15 days of the end of the claim period, or within 15 days of the date the claim form was made available online or mailed to the claimant, whichever is later. Claimants must not file both an online and a paper claim form for the same period(s). Once an individual submits a claim online, all subsequent claim forms will be made available online only, and will no longer be mailed.

Only one application needs to be filed during a benefit year, even if a claimant becomes unemployed more than once. However, a claimant must, in such a case, request a claim form from the RRB within 30 days of the first day for which he or she wants to resume claiming benefits. These claims may then be filed online or by mail.

11.  How does a person apply for and claim sickness benefits?

An Application for Sickness Benefits (SI-1a) can be obtained from RRB.gov, a railroad labor organization, or a railroad employer. Applications for sickness benefits must be submitted to the agency by mail, or by fax at 312-751-7185. Subsequent claims may be completed online by those with myRRB accounts.

An application including a doctor’s statement of sickness is required at the beginning of each period of continuing sickness for which benefits are claimed. Claimants should make a special effort to have the doctor’s statement of sickness completed promptly since claims cannot be paid without it.

The RRB suggests that employees keep an application for sickness benefits on hand, and that family members know where the form is kept and how to use it. If an employee becomes unable to work because of sickness or injury, the employee should complete the application and then have his or her doctor complete the Statement of Sickness (SI-1b). If a claimant receives sickness benefits for an injury or illness for which he or she is paid damages, it is important to be aware that the RRB is entitled to reimbursement of either the amount of the benefits paid for the injury or illness, or the net amount of the settlement, after deducting the claimant’s gross medical, hospital, and legal expenses, whichever is less.

If the employee is too sick to complete the application, someone else may do so. In such cases, a family member should also complete a Statement of Authority to Act for Employee (Form SI-10), which accompanies the statement of sickness.

After completion, the forms should be mailed to the RRB’s headquarters in Chicago within 10 days from when the employee became sick or injured. However, applications received after 10 days but within 30 days of the first day for which an employee wishes to claim benefits are generally considered timely filed if there is a good reason for the delay. Upon receipt, the RRB will process the application and determine if the employee is eligible for sickness benefits.

After processing the application, the RRB provides biweekly claims to the qualified employee as long as he or she is eligible for benefits and remains unable to work due to illness or injury. Biweekly claims are made available for completion online (by those with an account at myRRB) or mailed to the claimant. Completed claim forms must be received at the RRB within 30 days of the last day of the claim period, or within 30 days of the date the claim form was made available online or mailed to the claimant, whichever is later. Benefits may be lost if an application or claim is filed late. Claimants who know in advance that they will be filing a sickness application or claim late should include a signed statement explaining why they are unable to meet the required time frame.

As with claims for unemployment benefits, once a claim for sickness benefits is submitted online, all subsequent claims will be made available online only, and will no longer be mailed.

Claimants are reminded that while claim forms for sickness benefits can be submitted online, applications must be mailed to the RRB. Statements of sickness may be mailed with the sickness application or faxed directly from the doctor’s office to the RRB at 312-751-7185. Faxes must include a cover sheet from the doctor’s office.

12.  Is a claimant’s employer notified each time a biweekly claim for unemployment or sickness benefits is filed?

The RUIA requires the RRB to notify the claimant’s base-year employer each time a claim for benefits is filed. That employer has the right to submit information relevant to the claim before the RRB makes an initial determination on the claim. Benefits may not be paid at this time but the employee will receive a notice and have the right to appeal. In addition, if a claimant’s base-year employer is not his or her current employer, the claimant’s current employer is also notified. The RRB must also notify the claimant’s base-year employer each time benefits are paid to a claimant. The base-year employer may protest the decision to pay benefits. Such a protest does not prevent the timely payment of benefits. However, a claimant may be required to repay benefits if the employer’s protest is ultimately successful. The employer also has the right to appeal an unfavorable decision to the RRB’s Bureau of Hearings and Appeals.

The RRB also conducts checks with other federal agencies and all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, to detect fraudulent benefit claims, and it checks with physicians to verify the accuracy of medical statements supporting sickness benefit claims.

13.  How long does it take to receive payment?

Under the RRB’s Customer Service Plan, if a claimant files an application for unemployment or sickness benefits, the RRB will release a claim form or a denial letter within 10 days of receiving his or her application. If a claim for subsequent biweekly unemployment or sickness benefits is filed, the RRB will certify a payment or release a denial letter within 10 days of the date the RRB receives the claim form. If the claimant is entitled to benefits, his or her benefits will generally be paid within one week of that decision.

If a claimant does not receive a decision notice or payment within the specified time period, he or she may expect an explanation for the delay and an estimate of the time required to make a decision.

However, some claims for benefits may take longer to handle than others if they are more complex, or if an RRB office has to get information from other people or organizations, or under special circumstances such as the current pandemic.

Regarding the payments authorized under the CARES Act, after making necessary programming changes to claims processing systems, the RRB started paying extended unemployment benefits and unemployment recovery payments on May 11, and May 28, respectively. As for payment of the additional monies related to the elimination of the 7-day waiting period, the agency hopes to complete the needed programming changes for this provision in the near future. The RRB will initially make retroactive payments to individuals eligible for the payments listed above who had previously submitted unemployment claims before moving on to processing new claims.

Claimants who think an RRB office made the wrong decision about their benefits have the right to ask for review and to appeal. They will be notified of these rights each time an unfavorable decision is made on their claims.

14.  How are payments made?

Railroad unemployment and sickness insurance benefits are paid by direct deposit. With direct deposit, benefit payments are made electronically to an employee’s bank, savings and loan, credit union or other financial institution. New applicants for unemployment and sickness benefits will be asked to provide information needed for direct deposit enrollment.

15.  How can claimants get more information on their railroad unemployment or sickness claims?

Claimants with online myRRB accounts can log in to view their individual railroad unemployment insurance account statement. This statement displays the type and amount of the claimant’s last five benefit payments, the claim period for which the payments were made, and the dates that the payments were approved. Individuals can also confirm the RRB’s receipt of applications and claims.

In addition, claimants can call the agency toll-free at 1-877-772-5772 to access information about the status of unemployment and sickness claims or payments 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Individuals with questions about unemployment or sickness benefits, or who need information about their specific claims and benefit payments, can send a secure email to their local office by accessing Field Office Locator at RRB.gov and clicking on the link at the bottom of their local office’s page. If a customer absolutely needs to talk to an RRB employee, they can call the agency’s toll-free number (1-877-772-5772). However, customers are asked to be patient because of the increase in call volume due to the closure to the public of RRB offices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

VSTD COVID-19 Elimination Period Waiver is Extended

June 17, 2020

Dear Member:

As many of you may recall, the SMART Voluntary Short Term Disability Plan temporarily suspended the Elimination Period for COVID-19 (Coronavirus) disabilities. In an announcement to you dated April 15, 2020, we communicated that the Elimination Period was being waived for any COVID-19 (Coronavirus) disabilities beginning in the months of March, April and May 2020.

We are pleased to announce that the Plan will be extending this waiver for three (3) more months through August 2020. So, effective with all diagnosed COVID-19 (Coronavirus) disabilities beginning in the months of March through August 2020, the Plan’s Elimination Period will be waived. Members must usually be disabled for 21 days before benefits will begin on the 22nd day. This is known as the Elimination Period or Waiting Period. We are waiving this Waiting Period for positive COVID-19 (Coronavirus) disabilities. This change will expedite and increase benefits for approved applicants so that you will have immediate access to money. The Waiting Period will be reinstated for COVID-19 (Coronavirus) disabilities beginning on and after September 1, 2020.

We are pleased that the Plan can take this action on your behalf. We wish you and your family health and wellness during these trying times.

Sincerely,
Board of Trustees
Mr. Joseph Sellers Jr., General President SMART
Mr. Jeremy Ferguson, President-SMART Transportation Division
Mr. Joseph Powell, General Secretary-Treasurer SMART

The SMART Voluntary Short Term Disability Plan is administered by:
Southern Benefit Administrators, Incorporated
P.O. Box 1449
Goodlettsville, Tennessee 37070-1449
Toll-Free: (844) 880-1071, Fax: (615) 859-0201

View this announcement in PDF form.

Broad alliance tells White House: Transit workers need better protection from COVID-19

SMART General President Joseph Sellers Jr. and SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson as well as dozens of unions, business groups, economic justice organizations, and local transit advocates from across the nation wrote today to Vice President Mike Pence and Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, demanding better federal coordination to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for transit workers.

As of this week, the coronavirus has claimed the lives of nearly 100 transit workers in the United States.

The victims include Scott Ryan, 41, a bus operator at Community Transit in Snohomish County, Washington; Patrick Patoir, 57, an MTA worker in New York for 33 years; Jason Hargrove, 50, a Detroit bus operator; Eugenia Weathers, a school bus driver in Lexington, Kentucky; and SMART-TD Local 61 member Michael Hill, a conductor and 30-year SEPTA veteran in Philadelphia.

The federal government can and must take stronger steps to prevent such loss of life.

Bus and train operators, maintenance workers, and cleaning staff at transit agencies around the country are putting their lives on the line as they enable essential travel for millions of Americans, ensuring the continued provision of food, medical care, and other basic goods and services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without strong federal coordination to procure PPE for transit workers, they face needless risks on the job.

Based on guidance from infectious disease experts, the organizations demand the White House coordinate provision of N95 masks and other protective gear for frontline transit workers whose duties put them in close proximity to passengers, or require exposure to hazardous disinfectants. The groups also urge the CDC to issue stronger guidance for transit agencies, including recommendations on how to ventilate transit vehicles to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

These measures must be put in place to protect the transit workforce, which in turn will strengthen the overall effort to control the pandemic and minimize the spread of COVID-19. Nearly 3 million Americans classified as essential workers typically commute on transit, according to a TransitCenter analysis of U.S. Census data.

Protective gear for transit workers will have a strong multiplier effect, since reducing risk will increase the availability of the transit workforce, leading to greater provision of transit service, less crowding on transit vehicles, and lower rates of transmission among transit riders and thus the general population.

The alliance signing on to the letter reflects the broad public interest in protecting transit workers, encompassing labor, business, transportation, economic justice, environmental, and community-based organizations from dozens of states.

Supply chain issues affect every industry seeking protective gear. However, the need for transit workers is so urgent, and the consequences of further delay so dire, that federal action must be pursued as soon as possible. These protections will save the lives of transit workers, as well as the lives of nurses, doctors, food distribution workers, and other essential workers who rely on transit.

“Transit workers deserve every protection the government can muster,” said TransitCenter Executive Director David Bragdon. “Better coordination and provision of equipment will protect the health of hundreds of thousands of transit workers, and keep millions of other workers safe on their way to essential jobs.”

Read the entire letter here.

Vendor American Products taking bulk orders of facemasks

Arrangements have been made to have bulk quantities of facemasks for order through American Products Inc., an endorsed SMART Transportation Division vendor.

Two style options are available – one with a washable filter insert and a second single-layer cloth mask.

These are customizable and available in minimum quantities of 50 from the vendor. Contact Sherry Schirripa (sschirripa@comcast.net) or Vicki Harrington (vharrington@atc-ny.com) if interested in placing an order.

Visit smarttdmerchandise.com for more information.

America’s freight railroads refuse to cover out-of-pocket COVID-19 treatment costs

While America and the world struggle to combat the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, new heroes have emerged. While much of America has long celebrated its athletes and celebrities as its heroes, this pandemic has shown us who the real heroes are in our society.

At the onset of World War II, Maj. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower said in a letter to a close friend:

This is a long tough road we have to travel. The men that can do things are going to be sought out just as surely as the sun rises in the morning.

Vice President Brent Leonard

America’s freight railroad workers are the men and women that “can do things.” Throughout this unfathomable crisis, they have continued to transport the critical commodities and supplies that keep this country operating. These dedicated employees work incredibly long hours, with unpredictable schedules, little rest between shifts, and relatively no time off. The nation’s freight railroads are deemed so important to the economy and our country during this pandemic that the federal government has exercised its emergency order authority, and waived crucial safety regulations designed to protect these employees and the general public, all for the sake of keeping the trains running at maximum efficiency.

It would reason that America’s railroads and our elected representatives would want to take care of these heroes if they were affected by the COVID-19 virus by ensuring these men and women would be treated under medical insurance at no cost to the employee. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In a stunningly greedy and despicable move, the nation’s railroads have denied their employees and their unions’ requests for relief from the costs of COVID-19 treatment.

In a letter dated April 15th, Chairman Brendan M. Branon of the National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC), an association of more than 30 U.S. freight and passenger railroads employing more than 145,000 workers, advised rail labor organizations that they would NOT waive cost-sharing for COVID-19 treatment, wanting these families to pay their full portion of treatment costs if they are affected by COVID-19. This move is a slap in the face to the heroes who are working tirelessly to keep the railroads and the nation operating.

Let us put this in perspective. The nation’s railroads are not the struggling small businesses fighting to stay afloat. They are consistently reporting billions of dollars in annual profit. In addition to those billions in profits, the nation’s railroads take government (taxpayer) handouts to the tune of billions of dollars per year. These behemoths are provided billions in tax subsidies in everything from diesel fuel taxes, property taxes, to payroll taxes and infrastructure subsidies. Yes, we the taxpayers are helping fund the billions of dollars of profit that these railroads make. Yet the railroads choose to not fully cover their employees’ costs if they are infected with COVID-19. Do not forget, these are the employees who make it possible for gas stations to have gas to sell, that toilet paper can be produced, that grain and feed is supplied to livestock, that produce can be grown, that there are chemicals to purify our drinking water, and that medical supplies can reach our hospitals and healthcare professionals at a time when they need them most.

In the railroads’ refusal to fully cover these costs, they claim their “extensive measures to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak” are designed to limit employee exposure. While this pandemic is challenging for even the best-managed and -run businesses, the railroads are failing miserably in this regard. Reminiscent of the auto industry’s infamous practice of calculating the cost of lawsuits rather than recalling and fixing deadly cars, the railroads are doing precisely the same thing in regard to COVID-19.

In many instances, railroads have taken only the most basic steps to protect employees. Even with that minimal effort, unions have collected thousands of reports from rail employees indicating that no action has been taken whatsoever. The railroads are gambling that the cost of a few employees’ lives are less consequential to the bottom line than providing basic protective measures recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

This leads us to the potential cost of fully covering these frontline essential workers if they contract COVID-19. While it is difficult to provide an exact estimate at this time, it is a safe bet that the total additional cost is a pittance when compared to the uninterrupted billions in employee-generated revenue and taxpayer handouts the railroads continue to receive.

Ultimately, it is greed and disdain for frontline, essential workers that drives the railroad’s refusal to fully cover their employees’ out-of-pocket costs. Is this the America we have become? Do we no longer celebrate and protect our most-critical heroes who get things done?

Brent C. Leonard is a vice president of SMART Transportation Division, a labor union comprised of approximately 125,000 active and retired members of the former United Transportation Union, who work in a variety of different crafts, including as bus and commuter rail operators, in the transportation industry.

Second member passes from COVID; Ferguson calls for federal agencies to act

On April 15, SMART Transportation Division Local 61 (Philadelphia, Pa.) announced that conductor Michael A. Hill, 58, of Glassboro, N.J., died from the coronavirus.

Local 61 Legislative Representative Nichelle Miles poses with member Michael Hill. It was announced April 15 that Brother Hill passed away from COVID-19.

Brother Hill was a 30-year member of SMART-TD and worked for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA). He is the second active member fatality for SMART-TD from the virus following New Jersey Transit conductor Joseph Hansen, whose death was reported a week ago.

SMART Transportation Division President Jeremy Ferguson called General Chairperson Bernie Norwood to offer the condolences of all of SMART to the Hill family and Local 61. General Chairperson Norwood relayed to him that “Brother Hill was a great member that was no nonsense and always had a smile on his face. He really enjoyed being with his co-workers, attending football games for the Philadelphia Eagles and playing cards. Brother Hill will surely be missed.”

General Chairperson Norwood was also thankful for the assistance of UTUIA Field Supervisor Chris Malley, who is working with the family to ensure the fraternal UTUIA life insurance benefits Brother Hill had are handled quickly.

Brother Hill was on the front lines moving passengers as an essential employee and was doing so without all the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that should have been provided by SEPTA. As news of this second fatality reached him, Ferguson participated in an AFL-CIO-hosted conference call to news media April 15 taking to task federal agencies that he said have not gone nearly far enough in protecting workers during the coronavirus pandemic, even as our union’s death toll from COVID-19 increases.

The union has sent letters to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) seeking emergency orders that establish definitive regulations to protect employees. The FRA has only issued a safety advisory when they have the power to regulate, while FTA Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams did not even respond to a letter sent by SMART-TD, which is a slap in the face to labor, President Ferguson said during the call.

“I’m appalled that we can’t even get a response. It is not like we are asking for anything extravagant. Just what the CDC has stated is the bare requirements to ensure a safe work environment for both our members and the general public that use these services.” Ferguson said. “It’s paramount that we get this fixed at all levels of transportation, and quickly. Enough is enough.”

Other labor leaders participating in the conference included Transport Workers Union of America President John Samuelson, Amalgamated Transit Union President John Costa and AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Larry Willis.

New Guaranteed Approval Offering for SMART-TD Long-Term Voluntary Disability Plan (VDP)

All previously declined members and future enrolled members of the SMART-TD Long-Term Voluntary Disability Plan (VDP) now have access to up to $1,000 of guaranteed approved coverage.

North Olmsted, Ohio (April 16, 2020) — In May 2019, the SMART Transportation Division rolled out a new Voluntary Disability Plan (VDP) to all dues-paying members living in the United States and working at least 20 hours per week. This plan, underwritten by Amalgamated Life Insurance Company, was subject to simplified medical underwriting, which led to some members not receiving medical qualification for this important coverage.

SMART leadership has been in negotiations with Amalgamated to resolve this issue, and the company has agreed to provide $1,000 of guaranteed approved coverage to all future enrollees, including those who previously had been medically denied coverage.

This enhancement to the SMART TD Long-Term Disability Plan (VDP) applies to all members who had applied previously and were denied coverage and to all future new enrolled members.

The following conditions will be made effective on Aug. 1, 2020:

  • Those enrolled members must currently be actively at work
  • Members who previously enrolled and were declined may find themselves in a new age group based on the new effective date of coverage. This will impact their premiums.

The $1,000 guaranteed approved benefit plan will have the following design:

  • $1,000/month maximum benefit
  • 180-day elimination period
  • 2-year maximum benefit duration
  • 12/12 pre-existing limitation (pre-existing condition clock will start Aug. 1, 2020)

For more information about the enhanced VDP plan or to enroll, visit www.smart-vltd.com or call the SMART-TD VDP Enrollment Center at 224-770-5328.

About SMART TD: The SMART Transportation Division (SMART-TD) is comprised of approximately 125,000 active and retired members of the former United Transportation Union, who work in a variety of different crafts in the transportation industry. With offices in North Olmsted, Ohio, and Washington, D.C., SMART TD is the largest railroad operating union in North America.

For more information regarding this press release, please contact:
Carl Galdine
224-770-5328
carl@smart-vltd.com

VSTD NOTICE: ELIMINATION PERIOD WAIVED FOR COVID-19 (CORONAVIRUS) DISABILITIES

April 15, 2020

As Trustees of the SMART Voluntary Short Term Disability Plan, we have a responsibility to manage your Plan with care and prudence. We are always concerned with maximizing the benefit of the program for you, particularly in your time of need. We believe this has been accomplished over the years through favorable
changes to the Plan that have directly benefited you as a member.

We are all now facing a pandemic in this country with the spread of COVID-19, also referred to as Coronavirus. This disease has consumed our attention as a nation for weeks now and is a unique challenge for our country and its citizens. We want you as members of the SMART Rail and Bus workforce to know that the Plan is with you and supporting you where it can during this threat. It is for this reason that we are pleased to announce that we have taken immediate action to make it easier for you to qualify for a benefit from the Plan if you have been diagnosed with COVID-19 (Coronavirus). This disease has largely caught our country off guard and we know being afflicted with it can have direct and immediate financial implications for you and your family. The Plan is positioned to help.

Effective with all diagnosed COVID-19 (Coronavirus) disabilities beginning in the months of March, April and May 2020, the Plan’s Elimination Period (Waiting Period) will be waived. Currently, members must be disabled for 21 days before benefits will begin on the 22nd day. This is known as the Elimination Period (Waiting Period). We are waiving this Waiting Period for positive COVID-19 (Coronavirus) disabilities. This change will expedite and increase benefits for approved applicants so that you will have immediate access to money. Currently, the Waiting Period will be reinstated for COVID-19 (Coronavirus) disabilities beginning on and after June 1, 2020.

We are pleased that the Plan can take this action on your behalf. We wish you and your family health and wellness during these trying times.

Sincerely,
Board of Trustees
Mr. Joseph Sellers Jr., General President SMART
Mr. Jeremy Ferguson, President-SMART Transportation Division
Mr. Joseph Powell, General Secretary-Treasurer SMART

The SMART Voluntary Short Term Disability Plan is administered by:
Southern Benefit Administrators, Incorporated
P.O. Box 1449
Goodlettsville, Tennessee 37070-1449
Toll-Free: (844) 880-1071, Fax: (615) 859-0201

View this announcement in PDF form.

OSHA establishes plan to keep workers safe from COVID-19

WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) today announced an interim enforcement response plan for the coronavirus pandemic. The response plan provides instructions and guidance to OSHA area offices and compliance safety and health officers (CSHOs) for handling coronavirus-related complaints, referrals and severe illness reports.

During the coronavirus outbreak, OSHA area offices will utilize their inspection resources to fulfill mission essential functions and protect workers exposed to the disease. The response plan contains interim procedures that allow flexibility and discretion for field offices to maximize OSHA’s impact in securing safe workplaces in this evolving environment.

“OSHA is committed to protecting the health and safety of America’s workers during this challenging time in our nation’s history,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Loren Sweatt said. “Today’s guidance outlines commonsense procedures for investigating complaints related to the coronavirus, while also ensuring the safety of workers, employers and inspectors.”

The response plan outlines procedures for addressing reports of workplace hazards related to the coronavirus. Fatalities and imminent danger exposures related to the coronavirus will be prioritized for on-site inspections. The response plan contains procedures and sample documentation for CSHOs to use during coronavirus-related inspections. Workers requesting inspections, complaining of coronavirus exposure or reporting illnesses may be protected under one or more whistleblower statutes and will be informed of their protections from retaliation.

This memorandum will take effect immediately and remain in effect until further notice. It is intended to be time-limited to the current public health crisis. Check OSHA’s webpage at www.osha.gov/coronavirus frequently for updates.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA’s role is to help ensure these conditions for America’s working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit www.osha.gov.

The mission of the Department of Labor is to foster, promote and develop the welfare of the wage earners, job seekers and retirees of the United States; improve working conditions; advance opportunities for profitable employment and assure work-related benefits and rights.

RRB: Coronavirus Relief Act impacts railroad workers

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, signed into law March 27, boosts unemployment and sickness benefits for railroad workers impacted by the pandemic.

Under the CARES Act, the 1-week waiting period required before railroad workers can receive unemployment or sickness benefits is temporarily eliminated. This applies to an employee’s first two-week registration period for a period of continuing sickness or unemployment beginning after the effective date of the law and ending on or before December 31, 2020.

In addition, the amount of the unemployment benefit is increased by $1,200 per 2-week period. This is in addition to the current biweekly maximum of $733.98 received by most claimants. This increased amount applies to any two-week registration periods beginning on or after April 1, 2020, through July 31, 2020.

The CARES Act includes a separate appropriation of $425 million to pay for this added “recovery benefit,” with an additional $50 million provided to cover the cost of eliminating the waiting period. If these funds are exhausted, the new provisions will no longer apply.

The CARES Act also authorizes payment of extended unemployment benefits to rail workers who received unemployment benefits from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020.

Under the legislation, railroad workers with fewer than 10 years of service may be eligible for up to 65 days of extended benefits within seven consecutive two-week registration periods. Workers with 10 or more years of railroad service who were previously eligible for up to 65 days in extended benefits may now receive benefits for up to 130 days within 13 consecutive two-week registration periods.

Since RRB offices are currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, railroad employees are encouraged to file for unemployment benefits online by establishing an account through myRRB at RRB.gov. Employees are encouraged to use a computer rather than a smartphone or tablet due to RRB IT system limitations. Otherwise, applications and claims for benefits will need to be submitted by regular mail. Applications for sickness benefits must be submitted to the agency by mail, or by fax at 312-751-7185. Subsequent claims may be completed online by those with myRRB accounts.

The RRB will also pay sickness benefits and, in some cases, unemployment benefits, to rail workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 or who are subject to a quarantine order. Further guidance on these types of situations is available at RRB.gov/Benefits/Coronavirus.

COVID-19: CDC releases symptom screening app through Apple

Apple Inc., in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), released an app and website that guides Americans through a series of questions about their health and exposure to determine if they should seek care for COVID-19 symptoms.

The tool provides CDC recommendations on next steps, including guidance on social distancing and self-isolating, how to closely monitor symptoms, recommendations on testing, and when to contact a medical provider.

This app is designed to help Americans heed CDC guidelines and self-isolate to limit COVID-19 transmission as the pandemic continues.

Users can download the free app from Apple’s App Store or access the tool online at www.apple.com/covid19.

Everyone has a role to play as we work together to stop the spread of COVID-19. The latest recommendations can be found at www.coronavirus.gov.