Posts Tagged ‘RUIA’

Bipartisan bill introduced to end sequestration cuts to railroad unemployment benefits

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced S. 4860, the Railroad Employee Equality and Fairness Act or the REEF Act, which would end the sequester on the Railroad Retirement Board’s (RRB) Unemployment Insurance Account. Due to the Budget Control Act of 2011, and a subsequent sequestration order to implement mandated spending cuts, railroad unemployment benefits have been reduced by a set percentage that is subject to revision at the beginning of each fiscal year. Currently, the sequester, as it relates to the RRB, continues until fiscal year 2030. Without this legislation, it is expected that the sequestration will result in a 5.7 percent reduction in railroad unemployment benefits through fiscal year 2030.

Since most interstate railroad workers’ payroll taxes are diverted to the RRB, unemployed railroad workers are not eligible for federal unemployment insurance benefits, which was not subject to the sequester. This resulted in railroad workers taking a cut in expected benefits that the general public was not subject to. This is particularly concerning during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the RRB received 35,030 unemployment claims. As of September 2020, it has received 133,899 claims, nearly a fourfold increase.

“I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation to ensure that unemployed railroad workers receive fair and equal unemployment benefits. This legislation would remove the harmful sequester that largely singled out railroad workers’ unemployment benefits during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of the sequester has meant these railroad workers have not received the full unemployment insurance benefits that are due to them. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused nearly five times as many Ohio railroad workers to lose their jobs through no fault of their own and I urge my colleagues to join me in ensuring they are eligible for the same full unemployment benefits as all Americans,” said Portman.

“Our workers are facing enormous challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic and railroad workers have been hit particularly hard,” Klobuchar said. “This legislation ensures railroad employees are eligible for the same benefits as other workers and will help them get through these trying times.”

S. 4860 was read twice before the Senate Oct. 26 and referred to the Committee on the Budget. No other actions have taken place.

Union leadership: Rail bosses are tightening the screws on workers, representatives

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 joint letter from the SMART Transportation Division and BLET General Chairpersons to BNSF objecting to that Carrier’s attendance policy changes is available here.

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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.

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.

Rail workers of all unions urged to end RRB unemployment sequestration

U.S. rail unions have united in an effort to overturn the sequestration of Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA) benefits that was enacted by a GOP-held Congress during the Obama administration and continues to reduce the unemployment and sickness benefits of railroaders nearly a decade later.

A large bloc of the unions are represented by AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department (TTD), of which the SMART Transportation Division is a member.

A letter to U.S. Sens. Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown of Ohio sent by the union coalition requested that they jointly co-sponsor language consistent with the HEROES Act (H.R. 6800) to eliminate RUIA benefits from sequestration by amending the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985 to include RUIA among the other various programs that are not subject to sequestration. Portman, a Republican out of Cincinnati, is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that will make a decision on sequestration.

“Unlike the average U.S. worker, railroad employees do not receive unemployment benefits through state-administered unemployment insurance programs. Instead, unemployed railroaders receive these benefits through the RUIA program, which is administered by the United States Railroad Retirement Board (RRB),” TTD President Larry Willis said. “As a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, RUIA (benefits) are subject to sequestration. No state unemployment insurance benefits in the country are subject to this unfair treatment.”

RUIA unemployment and sickness benefits are sequestered at 5.9%, and have been subject to reduction for nine years. These rates are adjusted when the federal sequestration is recalculated yearly.

Railroaders are urged to call Portman at (202) 224-3353 to tell him to exclude RRB sickness and unemployment benefits from those reductions.

Read the unions’ joint letter to the senators.

RRB begins payment on extended unemployment benefits

From the RRB’s Public Affairs office:

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, recently signed into law by President Trump, authorized extended unemployment insurance (UI) benefits for railroad workers sidelined during the COVID-19 pandemic. After making necessary programming changes to agency systems, the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) began processing and paying extended benefits on May 11.

The CARES Act authorized payment of extended UI benefits to rail workers who received UI 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 can begin after December 31, 2020.

The RRB will identify any employees who exhausted their regular UI benefits during the benefit year that began July 1, 2019, and send them a letter and claim forms to receive the extended benefits. The agency will also load appropriate claim forms to online accounts so that individuals can file them online through myRRB on the agency website, RRB.gov.

Since RRB offices are currently closed to the public due to the pandemic, railroad employees are encouraged to file for UI benefits by setting up an online myRRB account if they have not already done so.

The extended benefits are being paid from a previous appropriation under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, of which $140 million remains. As a result, these benefits will not be charged to rail employers in calculating their contribution rates to fund the railroad unemployment system. Extended benefits will be payable until a claimant’s eligibility is exhausted or the appropriation is depleted, whichever comes first.

While the extended benefits will not be subject to reduction due to budget sequestration, the RRB does remind recipients that the payments are subject to income taxation and garnishment for tax or other legally established debts.

The team responsible for programming adjustments continues to work diligently to update systems to allow for the payment of the additional CARES Act benefits. When that processing is completed, payment will be made to cover retroactive periods. Meanwhile, employees who met eligibility requirements for UI at the beginning of the benefit year but had exhausted those benefits will now be able to file for and again receive UI benefits.

RRB labor update: Unemployed railroaders appear to be eligible for state Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)

I wanted to send out another update on what is going on at the agency. We have received inquiries regarding Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) that was established under the CARES Act and whether railroaders may be eligible for benefits under that program if they are not eligible for Railroad Unemployment Insurance Benefits (RUIA) benefits. The Department of Labor (DoL) is responsible for giving guidance to the states regarding the PUA benefits, so we asked the Railroad Retirement Board’s (RRB) General Counsel to reach out to the DoL. The RRB’s General Counsel has been advised by the DoL that nothing in the PUA provisions prohibit railroaders from being eligible for these benefits if they otherwise qualify. Similarly, the RRB’s General Counsel has found that there is nothing in the RUIA that prohibits railroaders from receiving PUA benefits if they are not receiving RUIA benefits. So as a result, I would recommend that if your members have been denied RUIA benefits, they check with their state unemployment services to see if they are eligible for PUA benefits. To find out the application process in each state, you can refer workers to the Unemployment Benefit Finder at the following website:

https://www.careeronestop.org/LocalHelp/UnemploymentBenefits/Find-Unemployment-Benefits.aspx.

RRB Labor Member John Bragg

We have also received questions about the $1,200 one-time economic relief payment. The Department of Treasury is responsible for making those payments, so unfortunately, we do not have information about the timing of those payments. Information about the economic relief payments can be found at the following link: https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/economic-impact-payments-what-you-need-to-know

Though not related to COVID-19, I wanted to inform you of a new hire at the RRB. As you may remember from previous updates, the Board has been trying to hire a Chief Medical Officer. A new CMO, Dr. Elizabeth Bonson, has been hired and starts today. We hope that the CMO’s presence at the agency will help make the disability process more efficient.

Finally, as you know, the RRB is located in Chicago and this week, the governor of Illinois extended the stay-at-home order through May 30. I anticipate that the agency headquarters will continue to primarily work remotely. Regarding the field offices, although not all states have the same limitations as Illinois, at present it is my recommendation that it is in the best interests of agency personnel and the railroad population we serve to maintain the current work environment for all offices. Consequently, for the time being, field offices will remain closed to the public and staff will work remotely with periodic visits to the office for administrative tasks.

John Bragg,
Labor member, Railroad Retirement Board

FAQ on Unemployment and Sickness Benefit Flexibilities Under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA) during the COVID-19 Virus Outbreak

From Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) Labor Member John Bragg:

As the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) works its way through this pandemic, I will continue to reach out to you, my fellow brothers and sisters, to keep you informed on the status of the RRB and the benefits we administer. Most recently, on March 31, 2020, I shared information on how the CARES Act boosts unemployment and sickness benefits for railroad workers impacted by the pandemic. That notice included a link to a page on the RRB’s website with guidance in the form of Q&As. You can find the FAQs here: Unemployment and Sickness Benefit Flexibilities Under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA) during the COVID-19 Virus Outbreak.

The purpose of this notice is to bring to your attention two changes which have been made to that guidance.

The first change relates to the instructions on filing applications and claims — specifically, the instructions related to the filing for sickness benefits. It is not a significant change, but I still wanted to bring it to your attention. Ordinarily, an applicant for sickness benefits must submit an application form and must also submit Form SI-1b, Statement of Sickness. Because the Form SI-1b requires a doctor’s signature and it was recognized that it may be difficult to get a physician to sign a statement during these unique circumstances, the RRB issued guidance indicating that, in lieu of Form SI-1b, a written statement could be submitted for the first claim. Because of the Paperwork Reduction Act and the manner in which federal agencies may collect information, that statement should now be submitted through an RRB Form G-93, Statement of Claimant or Other Person. You can find that form here: RRB Form-G-93. See also Questions 5-7 of the FAQs. A side benefit is that we believe this will simplify the process for those unable to obtain a Form SI-1b, as it is a fillable form.

The second change relates to the Q&As themselves. We have received numerous inquiries regarding the one-time-only economic relief payment provided by the CARES Act. The RRB is not responsible for these payments. Therefore, we have added the following as Q&A No. 16:

Q: Is the RRB going to pay the one-time-only economic relief payment available to individuals with income of $99,000 or less and couples with income of $198,000 or less?

A: No, the Department of the Treasury will be responsible for making those payments. Additional information regarding the one-time-only economic relief payments can be found at the following link: https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/economic-impact-payments-what-you-need-to-know

I want to assure you that, while the worksite environment has changed considerably for RRB employees, the longstanding tradition of commitment to assuring that railroad workers receive the benefits that they have earned remains as strong as ever. These are unprecedented times and I will do my best to keep you informed. As we make changes accordingly, the agency will keep updating the website as well as the FAQs. Meanwhile, if you have additional questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

John Bragg,
Labor Member, Railroad Retirement Board

What the COVID-19 bill means for our railroad members

On March 27, Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed into law a bill that provides provisions favorable to SMART Transportation Division members as the nation continues to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

The bill provides a $2 trillion relief package to the nation as it copes with COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has killed hundreds and infected thousands of Americans.

“This bill helps to provide some short-term relief to the transportation industry that has been staggered by the coronavirus,” National Legislative Director Greg Hynes said. “In the event that carriers continue to cut workers or that employees get sick, those workers, including our members, will have extended financial protection. It also gives a financial lifeline to Amtrak as the passenger carrier’s operations have been severely curtailed by the pandemic.”

This relief bill:

  • waives the seven-day waiting period for benefits provided under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA).
  • provides an enhanced RUIA benefit of $1,200 per two-week period in addition to regular RUIA benefits.
  • extends Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) sickness and unemployment benefits by 13 weeks.
  • provides RRB $5 million in additional grant funds to administer the RUIA.
  • provides $1 billion in funding to keep Amtrak operational to prevent, prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, including $492 million to the Northeast Corridor and $508 million to support its long-distance service.
  • tasks Amtrak with providing congressional reports regarding employee furloughs, if they occur.
  • provides relief checks up to $1,200 per person, $500 per child. Click here to calculate your amount.

The economic uncertainty and long-term health risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic present a challenge nationally, and the RRB is advising all railroaders to set up a RRB account. Click here to establish your account.

Due to the IT restraints and volume of contacts to the RRB, members are advised to access the RRB site from a computer, not a phone or tablet. Establishing an account gives workers a head start in the event that RRB unemployment or sick benefits are needed by RR workers in the case of carrier furloughs or illness.

Additional RRB funding and the removal of RRB benefits from the budget sequester implemented by congressional Republicans during the Obama administration may be considered in subsequent relief packages.

Stimulus law helps retirees, unemployed

The economic stimulus package, formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, contains provisions that will provide retirees with one-time payments of $250, extend unemployment benefits an additional 13 weeks, and subsidize employee-paid health-care insurance for laid off workers participating in COBRA.

Railroad Retirement and Social Security annuitants will be receiving a one-time $250 payment — a separate check delivered the same way the regular benefit is delivered. That $250 one-time payment will not be considered as taxable income.

Additionally, the economic stimulus package extends unemployment benefits – including those paid under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA) – for an additional 13 weeks.

For more information, including eligibility, contact the Railroad Retirement Board via its automated hotline at (800) 808-0772.

Also, the stimulus package provides a subsidy to help unemployed workers pay the costs of health-care insurance extended under COBRA, which stands for Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) of 1986.

That law gives employees, retirees, spouses and dependent children losing coverage under employer health-care plans the right to temporary (18-36 months) continuation of health coverage at group rates. Under COBRA, participants must pay for those health-care insurance benefits.

Under the economic stimulus package, workers laid off since September 2008 are eligible to receive, for a maximum of nine months, a 65 percent federal subsidy toward their payment of COBRA-extended health care insurance.

Government officials warn, however, that until the 65 percent federal contribution kicks in, unemployed workers electing COBRA continuation should continue to pay their premiums in full so as not to lose coverage. The federal government will be providing details shortly on how to apply for the 65 percent subsidy.

For more information on COBRA, go to the following Department of Labor Web site: www.dol.gov/ebsa/faqs/faq_consumer_cobra.HTML.

You may also refer to the COBRA section of the current health-plan description book or contact United Health Care at (888) 445-4379.