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Rail unions take attendance policy grievances to Buttigieg, Walsh

‘It is imperative that the Department of Transportation and Department of Labor act to address this most egregious railroad policy’

A BNSF train heads to its next destination. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Two major rail unions are taking their concerns about attendance programs at BNSF and other Class I railroads to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Martin Walsh, saying that employees are pressured to take on work even though they’re fatigued. 

The letter to the two officials came a day before BNSF’s new “Hi-Viz” attendance program took effect on Tuesday. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation objected to BNSF’s changes to its attendance policy and began taking actions that would lead to a strike, but a court order requested by BNSF prevented the unions from striking.

The letter extends their concerns about BNSF’s (NYSE: BRK.B) attendance programs to similar programs at Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP), CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) and Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) and any freight railroad with such a program.

“This policy and its draconian rules and standards fly in the face of railroad safety laws and regulations, and it disregards government recommendations intended to keep COVID-19 out of the workplace. As a result, available work force levels will be impeded and already historic levels of mid-career resignations will be increased,” said the Monday letter signed by BLET President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson. Administrator Amit Bose of the Federal Railroad Administration also received a copy of the letter.

The unions contend that the attendance programs don’t ensure adequate rest time for engineers and trainmen. The work schedule calls for the majority of these employees to be on an on-call status. When a railroad changes its train lineup — which details when trains are expected to arrive and depart a certain terminal — employees may be called into work before they’re fully rested because they’re being asked to take a train that’s at an earlier time than the one originally scheduled for them.  

The unions say that BNSF’s attendance policy penalizes employees for refusing the unpredicted call for duty if they’re fatigued and potentially subjects them to disciplinary action if they request time off because they or a family member is ill. They also say the policy disincentivizes employees from taking leave that is permitted under the Family Medical Leave Act. 

“It is imperative that the Department of Transportation and Department of Labor act to address this most egregious railroad policy, as well as those implemented by NS, CSX and Union Pacific and any other railroad with similar policies. The safety and health of the engineers and trainmen who are employed at BNSF, and the safety of the general public stands in the balance,” the letter said.

In response to the letter, UP told FreightWaves: “The safety of our employees is our number one priority. We continue to comply with our federally mandated hours of service and rest obligations.”

BNSF told FreightWaves that it gave several weeks’ notice before implementing the Hi-Viz program, and during that time it listened to employees and made modifications. BNSF said it would continue to listen to employees as the program rolls out.

“Our program is designed to provide ample time for obligations outside of work, including planned vacations, personal leave days and unplanned absences while ensuring that we have sufficient employees available to work,” BNSF said. “BNSF team members drive our success and we couldn’t deliver the nation’s goods without them. We understand that change can be an adjustment, but working together with our employees, we believe we can adapt to meet today’s competitive freight environment.”

BNSF also said the new system will provide more predictability to train crews, as well as more reliable crew availability to customers.

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.