Under the Railroad Retirement Act (RRA), a “current connection with the railroad industry” is one of the eligibility requirements for both the occupational disability and supplemental annuities payable by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB). It is also a factor in determining whether the RRB or the Social Security Administration pays monthly benefits to survivors of a railroad employee.
The following questions and answers describe the current connection requirement and the ways the requirement can be met.
1. How is a current connection determined under the RRA?
To meet the current connection requirement, an employee must generally have been credited with railroad service in at least 12 months of the 30 months immediately preceding the month his or her Railroad Retirement annuity begins. If the employee died before retirement, railroad service in at least 12 months in the 30 months before the month of death will meet the current connection requirement for the purpose of paying survivor benefits.
However, if an employee does not qualify on this basis, but has 12 months of railroad service in an earlier 30-month period, he or she may still meet the current connection requirement. This alternative generally applies if the employee did not have any regular employment outside the railroad industry after the end of the last 30-month period which included 12 months of railroad service, and before the month the annuity begins or the month of death if earlier.
Once a current connection is established at the time the Railroad Retirement annuity begins, an employee never loses it, no matter what kind of work is performed thereafter.
2. Can non-railroad work before retirement break a former railroad employee’s current connection?
Yes. Full or part-time work for a non-railroad employer in the interval between the end of the last 30-month period including 12 months of railroad service and the month an employee’s annuity begins, or the month of death if earlier, can break a current connection, even with minimal earnings.
Self-employment in an unincorporated business will not break a current connection. However, if the business is incorporated the individual is considered to be an employee of the corporation, and such self-employment can break a current connection. All self-employment will be reviewed to determine if it meets the RRA’s standards for maintaining a current connection.
Federal employment with the Department of Transportation, National Transportation Safety Board, Surface Transportation Board, National Mediation Board, Railroad Retirement Board or Transportation Security Administration will not break a current connection. State employment with the Alaska Railroad, as long as that railroad remains an entity of the State of Alaska, will not break a current connection. Also, railroad service in Canada for a Canadian railroad will neither break nor preserve a current connection.
3. Is there an exception to these normal procedures for determining a current connection?
Yes. A current connection can also be “deemed” for purposes of a survivor or supplemental annuity if the employee completed 25 years of railroad service, was involuntarily terminated without fault from his or her last job in the railroad industry, and did not thereafter decline an offer of employment in the same class or craft in the railroad industry regardless of the distance to the new position. (A “deemed” current connection does not satisfy the current connection requirement for an occupational disability.)
If all of these requirements are met, an employee may be considered to have a “deemed” current connection, even if the employee works in regular non-railroad employment after the 30-month period and before retirement or death. This exception to the normal current connection requirement was established by amendments to the RRA and became effective October 1, 1981. It only covers employees still living on that date who left the rail industry on or after October 1, 1975, or who were on leave of absence, on furlough or absent due to injury on October 1, 1975.
4. Would accepting a buy-out affect whether an employee could maintain a current connection under this exception?
Generally, in cases where an employee has no option to remain in the service of his or her railroad employer, the termination of the employment is considered involuntary, regardless of whether or not the employee receives a buy-out.
However, if an employee has the choice of either accepting a position in the same class or craft in the railroad industry or termination with a buy-out, accepting the buy-out is a part of his or her voluntary termination, and the employee would not maintain a current connection under the exception.
5. An employee with 25 years of service is offered a buy-out with the option of either taking payment in a lump sum or of receiving monthly payments until retirement age. Could the method of payment affect the employee’s current connection under the exception?
No. The determining factor for whether the exception applies when a buy-out is paid is whether or not the employee stopped working involuntarily – not the payment option. The employee must always relinquish job rights to accept the buy-out, regardless of whether it is paid in a lump sum or in monthly payments. Neither payment option extends the 30-month period.
An employee considering accepting a buy-out should also be aware that if he or she relinquishes job rights to accept the buy-out, the compensation cannot be used to credit additional service months beyond the month in which the employee severed his or her employment relation, regardless of whether payment is made in a lump sum or on a periodic basis.
6. What if the buy-out agreement allows the employee to retain job rights and receive monthly payments until retirement age?
The RRB considers this type of buy-out to be a dismissal allowance. When a monthly dismissal allowance is paid, the employee retains job rights, at least until the end of the period covered by the dismissal allowance. If the period covered by the dismissal allowance continues up to the beginning date of the railroad retirement annuity, railroad service months would be credited to those months. These railroad service months would provide at least 12 railroad service months in the 30 months immediately before the annuity beginning date and maintain a regular current connection. They will also increase the number of railroad service months used to calculate the Railroad Retirement annuity.
7. Could the exception apply in cases where an employee has 25 years of railroad retirement coverage and a company reorganization results in the employee’s job being placed under social security coverage?
Yes. The RRB has considered the exception applicable in cases where a 25-year employee’s last job in the railroad industry changed from Railroad Retirement coverage to Social Security coverage and the employee had, in effect, no choice available to remain in Railroad-Retirement-covered service. Such 25-year employees have been “deemed” to have a current connection for purposes of receiving supplemental and survivor annuities.
8. Where can a person get more specific information on the current connection requirement?
More information is available on RRB.gov or by contacting an RRB field office. It is important to know that while nearly all of the RRB’s 53 field offices are physically closed to the public until further notice because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, they remain accessible online and by phone. Customers are encouraged to contact their local office by accessing Field Office Locator at RRB.gov and clicking on Send a Secure Message at the bottom of their local office’s page. Customers who prefer talking to an RRB employee can call the agency’s toll-free number (1-877-772-5772); however, they may experience lengthy wait times due to increased call volume caused by COVID-19-related issues.
President Joe Biden made good on a promise to support workers and the labor movement on his first day when he fired National Labor Board General Counsel Pete Robb within 24 hours of taking office.
Robb, a former union buster with a virulently anti-union record, refused Biden’s request to resign on inauguration day. No president had previously fired an NLRB counsel, though one anti-union counsel resigned at the request of President Harry Truman in 1950.
The position of NLRB General Counsel wields significant power in the field of labor power because it is the General Counsel who decides which cases to prosecute while administering how to follow the law when cases are argued.
Robb had spent the past few years advancing numerous employer-friendly arguments and interpretations of the National Labor Relations Act. He made it a priority to allow employers to unilaterally modify contract terms and narrowed the scope in which union stewards and representatives could operate at the worksite. He also helped shape employer-friendly NLRB decisions that resulted in what some call a “slap on the wrist” when employers violate the law.
SMART was stunned and horrified by the attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol building two weeks ago, which was encouraged by Mr. Trump and resulted in the murder of a U.S. Capitol police officer. Despite this attack on our beloved country, healing is coming soon. Today, Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as President and Vice President of the United States. Before even taking office, President Biden had already shown that he will prioritize working Americans and that unions will have a seat at the table in the Biden administration.
The Biden-Harris Transition Team has engaged with unions, including SMART. Our very own David Bernett, NEMIC Administrator and member of Local 12-SM in Pittsburgh, PA, served as a volunteer on the U.S. Department of Labor Agency Review Team for the Biden-Harris Transition. SMART attended meetings with various Transition teams and emphasized our members’ priorities, including two-person crews, protecting our pensions, rail safety, indoor air quality, bus driver assaults, prevailing wage, and action to help our members during the COVID-19 pandemic. SMART even met with a member of the Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board to discuss the importance of indoor air quality and the value offered by our union and its high-skilled workforce.
President Biden has been listening. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh was nominated to serve as Labor Secretary and lead the Department of Labor. He is a member of the Laborers and has fought for working families his entire career. In addition, Pete Buttigieg was nominated to serve as Transportation Secretary and lead the Department of Transportation. He has committed to addressing worker needs and invest in our infrastructure. SMART applauds these nominations.
The Biden administration will stand up for our members and their families after four years of empty promises. SMART looks forward to working with the Biden administration and will hold the administration accountable to its promises to build an economy that lifts up American working families. SMART will keep its membership informed every step of the way.
This form will become the primary tool to report and collect data concerning unsafe working conditions, including COVID-19 issues, from all members. Organizational information such as Craft, Local, Carrier and General Committee are loaded based on a member’s selection using defined database values, ensuring an accurate submission so that the officers responsible for acting on the report are directly and timely informed.
Members are presented a default list of safety hazards (including COVID-19) to choose along with identifying the state and location of the unsafe condition. Additionally, the form will dynamically update based on the members’ input, creating a customized report. After submission, an automated email to the General Chairperson and State Legislative Director with jurisdiction is sent as an initial notification. Full details of the Safety Condition Report are then accessed by these officers via the TD Connect portal along with printing and exporting capabilities for further collaboration with Local officers so that the unsafe conditions can be addressed.
It is important to note that the data collected by this Safety Condition Report and the information within are kept and used solely within our SMART Union computer system and are used by SMART-TD officers to assist in addressing the issues presented by members.
“Membership safety and well-being is a founding principal of this Union, but we cannot assist without being properly informed of the unsafe issues facing our fellow brothers and sisters.” SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson stated. “These reports are to enhance our safety efforts as many carriers lack proper and effective reporting mechanisms. Our SMART Constitution lists safety as our local legislative representatives’ primary mission, stating ‘They shall report to their Locals regarding the handling of all alleged unsafe or unsanitary working conditions found to exist, or reported to them, within their jurisdiction. They shall undertake to correct such conditions through appropriate measures consistent with the local and national policies of the Transportation Division.’ Therefore, we ask that you also forward this information as soon as possible to your local legislative representative or other SMART Union officer for proper handling. If you are unsure who they are or how to contact them, please contact our office.
“It is imperative that we all accept the personal responsibility to properly document known unsafe conditions, acts and security concerns. If more people would take the time to do this we could, over time, address most of the long-standing concerns we have. Without documentation, nothing will ever change — the issues and concerns will continue to remain and often grow until a very unfortunate situation such as an injury, accident or fatality brings to light what many knew was a problem long ago but failed to address.”
The union’s chief safety officer hopes that the use of this form brings hazards that have been taken for granted or tolerated by workers to light.
“Sadly, we hear one particular scenario too often,” SMART-TD Chief of Staff Jerry Gibson said. “Someone says, ‘That has been an issue for a long time’ or ‘Everyone knows that is a problem’ at a particular property. Yet everyone assumes that someone else has written the unsafe condition up and unfortunately, no one has. The issue remains and the carriers use that against us by stating the very same thing — ‘That has been like that forever, and no one has said anything or taken issue with it.’
“This online reporting process is here to change that. Your union’s leadership wants to raise our safety standards. The carriers will no longer be allowed to dictate our level of personal safety … enough is enough. Only when we, as a collective group, choose to properly address our issues and concerns can we expect others to comply with those demands. It is the charge of the carrier to provide us with the proper training, security and safe work environment while doing so … and we will hold them accountable.”
The Safety Condition Report is accessible directly from the SMART-TD home page as both a banner and as a menu item — look for the blinking yellow caution signal.
“Please assist us with assisting you,” President Ferguson said. “All of our members deserve safe working conditions on the job and to return home safely. If there is an issue you want to report — report it.”
The SMART Voluntary Short Term Disability Plan (VSTD) has temporarily suspended the elimination period for COVID-19 disabilities. Previously, the waiver of the elimination period began in the month of March and extended through May of this year and then was once again extended until November 2020.
SMART, in conjunction with Southern Benefit Administrators, is pleased to announce that the waiver of the elimination period is being extended through February 28, 2021. Effective with all diagnosed COVID-19 disabilities beginning in the months of March 2020 through February 2021, the Plan’s elimination period will be waived. A member must usually be disabled for 21 days before benefits will begin on the 22nd day. With the waiver of the elimination period, members who have tested positive for COVID-19 will have earlier access to benefits.
The waiting period will be reinstated for COVID-19 disabilities beginning on or after March 1, 2021.
SMART-TD shares with the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the dream that men and women should be judged not by the color of their skin, their nationality or religious beliefs, but by the content of their hearts.
Below is a link to Dr. King’s speech, delivered on Aug. 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, during the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” Recall too, that on the day of Dr. King’s 1968 assassination, he was in Memphis, Tenn., to support striking sanitation workers. He was truly friend of the labor movement.
Federal Railroad Administrator Ron Batory in a Jan. 14 letter to union leaders denied a request from the SMART Transportation Division (SMART-TD) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) to issue an emergency order to safeguard passenger rail travelers and workers, even in the face of known threats and the potential for violence, according to the FBI.
“Regrettably, we received a response from FRA Administrator Ron Batory that denied our Emergency Order request from earlier this week,” SMART-TD President Jeremy R. Ferguson said. “It seems that the safety-first mentality has fleeted under his watch and now the agency is not even willing to strengthen or increase enforcement actions against those that may do harm to the people, equipment, or infrastructure of this nation’s rail system – a complete deviation from FAA, its sister agency under the same DOT umbrella.
“FAA has announced extremely aggressive measures to deter those willing to do harm from boarding commercial aircraft. It’s sad that FRA refuses to do the same.”
In his letter, Batory deferred to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and encouraged rail labor to work with the carriers on bulking up security. This is in spite of the FRA being the primary agency responsible for regulating and enforcing passenger behavior, including the interference or assault of a train crew.
“While your petition correctly notes the differences in statutory and regulatory authorities between the Federal Aviation Administration and the FRA, which evolved based upon operational differences and legislative considerations, these differences do not provide a basis for FRA to take the requested action,” Batory responded. “Accordingly, FRA declines to grant your request for an emergency order. In addition, FRA does not believe it would be appropriate to introduce such an emergency order into the long-standing, well-established law enforcement partnerships between railroads and Federal, state, and local agencies.
“Consistent with your stated willingness ‘to work with the applicable agencies,’ we encourage you to work with railroads as they coordinate to provide for safe passenger rail service at the upcoming Inauguration and beyond,” Batory wrote.
Leaders from both SMART-TD and the BLET, two of the nation’s largest railroad labor unions, expressed concerns to FRA on Jan. 11 and to DHS on Jan. 13 about security vulnerabilities in passenger rail service in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection that occurred at the U.S. Capitol. While airport and air travel security administered by the FAA is well-equipped to react to bar those suspected of causing violence from air travel, no such measures are in place for passenger rail.
“Realizing years of neglect cannot be fixed overnight, we are demanding that significant changes to passenger rail protocol be granted immediately to protect against the imminent threat of danger that exists today,” President Ferguson and BLET President Dennis R. Pierce said. “It is our recommendation, as a minimal standard, that any regulation granted to prohibit the interference of a train crew’s duty be in line with that of aviation statutes and regulations.”
Among the remedies suggested by the union leaders to FRA was the establishment and implementation of a “No-Ride List,” which would mirror the FAA’s “No Fly List” and restrict people from using passenger rail. This solution also was shared with the DHS in the Jan. 13 emergency order request.
“There is nothing more important than the safety of our employees. Since the start of the pandemic, our dedicated frontline employees have kept our trains running, providing a vital transportation service to essential workers. We join our labor partners in continuing to call upon Congress and the Administration to make assaults against rail workers a Federal crime, as it is for aviation workers, and to expand the TSA’s “No Fly List” to rail passenger service,” Flynn said.
“After last week’s violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, we are taking extra steps to continue ensuring the safety of our employees and customers in Washington DC and across our network as we prepare for the Inauguration. In addition to limiting ticket sales and requiring masks to be worn at all times, we are increasing our police enforcement to ensure strong compliance, remove noncomplying customers and ban those that don’t follow our policies,” Flynn said. “This includes deploying additional Amtrak Police officers onboard our trains and in our stations to support our frontline staff, and utilizing additional support from TSA and partner law enforcement agencies.”
As a precaution in advance of the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden next week, two regional passenger rail carriers have announced service changes. The Maryland Department of Transportation stated it was halting traffic on three MARC lines from Jan. 17th to the 20th. Virginia Railway Express (VRE) said it will not operate trains Monday, Jan. 18 through Jan. 20 as well, citing security concerns.
DHS continues to weigh the emergency order request from the unions to implement a “No-Ride List” despite Batory’s rejection of the unions’ emergency order request and FRA’s failure to act.
On January 8, 2021, Arbitrator Wendell Bell issued his arbitration award regarding the process and procedure in arbitrating the Carriers’ (UP, BNSF, NS & KCS) attack on the Crew Consist Moratoria.
The arbitration, known as a “Procedural Public Law Board,” had the purpose of determining the terms of how any primary arbitration should proceed. Procedural PLBs 7959, 7960, 7961 & 7962 were a result of SMART-TD’s efforts disputing the improper action of the Railroads to prematurely re-open crew consist negotiations before the appropriate moratorium expired.
SMART-TD argued the Carriers improperly served their Notice to Arbitrate and failed to properly conference their suddenly new-found interpretations of the moratoria. SMART-TD not only prevailed in these arguments, it also secured a ruling ensuring the terms of the next round of arbitration will be conducted properly.
In a fairly dense 35-page award, which cited U.S. Supreme Court and numerous lower-court decisions along with several arbitration awards, the Procedural Arbitrator set May 1, 2021, for the next round of arbitration, dependent upon funding approvals by the National Mediation Board. As currently constructed, the National Mediation Board consists of two Republican members appointed by President Donald Trump and one Democrat member. It is expected the make-up of the Board will change shortly once the nominations by President-elect Biden are confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Whether those changes will be able to take place prior to the selection of the next arbitrator or May 1st is unknown.
The railroads’ efforts to swiftly force a change to crew consist while still under the railroad-friendly Trump Administration is now unlikely due to the unwavering effort of SMART-TD. Since October 2019, when the railroads first ignited this fight, SMART-TD has defended our agreements against this attempted subversion by the carriers. We have and continue to tirelessly fight for our members’ livelihoods.
SMART-TD members can rest assured that their union will continue to fight to protect your crew consist agreements and livelihood, while seeking to secure the opportunities of the future in the rapidly changing and technology-laden railroad industry.
President-elect Joe Biden has decided not to take Amtrak to his inauguration ceremony after security concerns intensified following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, CNN reports.
Biden had planned a journey similar to the one he had taken from Delaware to D.C. as a U.S. senator when he commuted daily on the passenger rail carrier. He also took a ride on Amtrak into D.C. for his 2009 inauguration for his first vice presidential term.
However, the attack on the U.S. Capitol and additional threats detected by federal agencies led to the cancellation after Biden had initially announced his intention to take the train.
CLEVELAND, Ohio (Jan. 13, 2021) — The leaders of two of the nation’s largest railroad worker unions urgently petitioned the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in a letter Jan. 13 to enact a “No-Ride List” on passenger rail carriers after the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington D.C.
The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers — Transportation Division (SMART-TD) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) demanded that the DHS take immediate executive action to tighten passenger rail security in line with aviation security overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“Even as of this hour, the only real requirement for a person to board a train is simply to have a ticket; nothing more, nothing less. There is no screening process. There is no TSA. And there are no significant statutes or regulations to penalize those willing to interfere with a train’s crew or to do harm on a train, especially not when compared to the airline industry,” Presidents Jeremy R. Ferguson of SMART-TD and Dennis R. Pierce of the BLET said in their emergency order request.
SMART-TD and BLET urge that DHS implement a “No-Ride List” that mirrors FAA’s No Fly List immediately by expanding 49 U.S.C. §114(h) to include the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and passenger rail carriers.
“By granting an extension of the statute and giving access to the FRA and rail carriers, there will be, at minimum, a line of protection against those known to pose a threat from utilizing rail to manipulate the country’s transportation system, and it will mitigate against unwanted, aggressive interaction or attacks on train crews,” the presidents wrote.
The petition to DHS for an emergency order follows a similar petition sent Jan. 11 to FRA urging it to act to prevent security vulnerabilities and to protect those who ride — as well as the essential workers who operate — passenger rail service in and around the nation.
The SMART Transportation Division is 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.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen represents nearly 58,000 professional locomotive engineers and trainmen throughout the United States. The BLET is the founding member of the Rail Conference, International Brotherhood of Teamsters.