CLEVELAND, Ohio, (August 21, 2020) — As freight rail traffic levels rebound strongly from the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, railroad management has unleashed an unprecedented barrage of measures to manipulate recalls from furloughs, make already draconian attendance policies even more punitive and interfere with union representatives who fight to protect their members from this abuse.
SMART Transportation Division and the BLET’s National Division both have received multiple reports from their General Committees of Adjustment on various Class I railroads indicating two specific types of recall-related conduct that could jeopardize tens of thousands of dollars in unemployment benefits. These benefits are paid pursuant to the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA), which is administered by the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board.
At least one carrier is disputing unemployment claims for all days later than the date of a recall notice, regardless of when the furloughed worker actually received the notice and irrespective of collective bargaining agreement provisions that provide the employee with a certain number of days within which to report. These provisions allow furloughed railroad workers to make necessary arrangements to settle personal and family obligations, such as child care, to accommodate a return to work without being penalized economically for the position in which the carrier’s furlough originally placed them.
The GCAs have also reported that one or more carriers have recalled furloughed employees who, after reporting for work, are then furloughed for a second time. In at least one instance, an employee quit other employment he had found, only to be kicked to the street again by the railroad without ever having performed service. And, for workers receiving RUIA benefits, a one-week waiting period during which no benefits are paid could be triggered, depending upon the timing and duration of this second furlough.
The leaders of both unions expressed outrage over these actions.
“Just when one thinks the carriers can’t possibly stoop any lower, they try to game the RUIA system to their benefit,” said SMART-TD President Jeremy R. Ferguson and BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce. “Since RUIA tax rates are experience-based, maybe the carriers are looking to minimize next year’s hit. But cutting their losses on the backs of union members and their families in this fashion is reprehensible.”
In an August 14 letter, SMART-TD and BLET General Chairpersons jointly blasted BNSF management for changes to that Carrier’s attendance policy. According to the letter, the changes would be implemented via a blitz of threatening letters to workers who took off from work on what are now, but were not then, viewed by the Carrier as being “high impact” days. Most of these are family-friendly days, including national holidays, and letters apparently are being sent even in cases where permission to take the time off had been granted to workers.
“The Carrier continues to remain inflexible when it comes to respecting workers’ attempts to have lives outside of work,” the union presidents said. “If a worker happens to have chosen to engage in a family event, to enjoy a holiday or some sort of emergency cropped up on one of these unknown-until-now ‘high-impact’ days, he or she can now expect to receive a threatening letter and have a watchful eye just waiting to issue punishment if they dare have off time that coincides with another of these days.”
The unions’ General Chairpersons also pointed out that thousands of BNSF operating employees remain furloughed, and that this reserve is more than sufficient to meet any service needs on “high impact” days while, at the same time, allowing reasonable time off from work. Further, they report that the Carrier continues to do nothing to address long-standing problems with poor lineups, denial of reasonable vacation and personal leave requests, excessive held away-from-home terminal times during holidays, excessive on-duty times and denied holiday pay claims. As a reminder, even in the midst of a pandemic-stricken U.S. economy, BNSF reported second-quarter earnings of more than $1.13 BILLION in net earnings and a 61.1% operating ratio thanks to the essential work done by employees who are being targeted for discipline and punishment by this policy.
BNSF also is attempting to pressure working local union representatives to not take time off from work to represent their members. In some cases, local representatives are invited to conferences with the railroad, then are denied the time off work to attend the conference, forcing them to mark off for union business. When they do so, the railroad warns that their use of union business mark-offs is excessive and they, too, may fall subject to that Carrier’s intensified attendance policy.
“Shame on BNSF for expanding their anti-worker attendance policy in a way that is plainly anti-family,” Ferguson and Pierce said. “In no event will our union representatives be intimidated into not performing the duties of their offices. Our members should keep in mind that Election Day in November will determine whether these examples of unconscionable corporate misbehavior will continue to receive the approval of federal government officials at the highest levels.”
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 crafts 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.