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Union members threaten to strike over BNSF’s new attendance policy

BNSF contends policy provides employees with real-time information on work scheduling

Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation (SMART-TD) are considering going on strike at BNSF over an attendance program that they say is overly restrictive and hints of precision scheduled railroading practices.

According to a Thursday release from the two unions, BNSF’s “Hi-Viz” attendance program, which would go into effect on Feb. 1, “repudiates numerous collectively bargained agreements currently in place throughout the BNSF system.” 

The unions describe the policy as a points-based system that penalizes employees for “any time they take off work for practically any reason.” 

The unions say that BNSF (NYSE: BRK.B) has developed the program in order to improve crew availability and remain competitive in the industry, and that BNSF describes the program as incentivizing consistent and reliable attendance.

“BNSF goes on to claim that a reduction in absenteeism will improve predictability of work assignments,” the unions said Thursday. “However, the affected employees and their unions have made clear that they view BNSF’s approach to this issue as a juxtaposition. That is: if the carrier instead focused its efforts on predictable scheduling of assignments and competent management of its furloughed employees, there would be no need to impose such draconian attendance policies.”

BNSF didn’t comment on the details of the new attendance program, but the railroad told FreightWaves in a statement: “BNSF team members drive the railroad’s success and we couldn’t deliver the nation’s goods without our employees. BNSF has not changed its attendance guidelines in more than 20 years. This week, BNSF announced a new system that is designed to provide employees with real-time information and greater flexibility, so they can make informed decisions about their work schedules.”

BNSF continued, “This policy update is consistent with practices across the transportation industry, while helping us safely and efficiently serve our customers and the communities that count on us. 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.”

As a result of the policy, BLET and SMART-TD said their organizations’ respective BNSF General Committees of Adjustment have permission to begin polling membership on whether to withdraw from service over this dispute. 

If a majority of BLET membership votes in favor of a strike, BLET’s national president and BLET’s general chairman need to approve a date to withdraw from service, per union code. For SMART-TD, union leadership may authorize a strike if the general chairpersons obtain two- thirds majority approval from the local chairpersons, the Thursday release said. 

There are more than 17,000 active members of BLET and SMART-TD at BNSF. BNSF hasn’t said publicly whether it has adopted precision scheduled railroading (PSR), an operational model adopted by all the other Class I railroads.

In Thursday’s joint statement, BLET National President Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD President Jeremy Ferguson said, “Our members have simply had enough of the treatment they are enduring from the BNSF Railway. The Company’s half-baked attempt to characterize this policy as an ‘improvement’ and an ‘incentive’ is nothing short of disingenuous, and outright insulting.”

“Although BNSF will not admit it, it has implemented so-called Precision Scheduled Railroading and is attempting to do more with less by intimidating our members, under threat of discipline and/or termination, into working additional shifts while they continue to furlough junior employees,” they continued. “Our members have worked tirelessly to keep goods moving during a global pandemic, but the railroad is once again placing monetary profits over people to appease shareholders and Wall Street. Our membership is tired, frustrated and fed up with the treatment they continue to receive.”

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  1. The attendance policy has been changed in the last 20 years the have declared certain days of the year as high impact days which started in 2021

  2. Remember they always cancel RSIA rest by monitoring boards to reset starts when you almsot qualify for 48 to 72 hours rest. No one ever gets rest days. You work every day.

  3. “This week, BNSF announced a new system that is designed to provide employees with real-time information and greater flexibility…” actually there is no flexibility, they announced to employees in 3 daily FAQs that employees aren’t available enough at the disposal of the railroad even thought they are already away from home on railroad time and orders (some of that, up to half, spent rotting in a hotel unpaid with no recourse to being held away 30-40 hours)

    “…so they can make informed decisions about their work schedules.” WHAT?!? Schedules?!? What’s that? Correction: employees don’t get schedules. It is the railroad’s schedule. Employees don’t decide anything. They had 25% unavailability allowed which was wittled down to under 1% under the new draconian attendance policy. The hi viz system is more confusing and inconsistent than the prior attendance policy could be in a million years. It’s a game of scrabble, you pick the wrong day to be sick and they can layer points upon points. The ONLY thing the new system does is tell you how close you are to being fired. You only get a points total and a vivid reminder of how unappreciated you are by shoving your points talley in your face that NEVER falls off. Unless you work 14 days straight to earn 1 sick day back. If you are out sick 3 days, you have to work a month and a half without any days off to earn that back. You face retribution for taking FMLA, getting sick, family emergency, death in family, childbirth, you name it. You are required to give the railroad 703 out of 727 hours per month. There is no “informed decision” you don’t get a choice at all! And if you are off a holiday? One holiday day? It will take you 2 and a half months working without a day off to earn that back. Better not get sick too many days to quickly, that’s a firing.

  4. I have worked for them for 24 yrs

    Imagine you don’t have
    Scheduled days off EVER and that you are on call 24/7/365. Being on call means that your phone could ring at any minute and you only have 90 minutes to report to work. Once you are off shift they can call you 10 hours later any time day or night.

    Now imagine your employer giving you 30 points in a bank. If you want a day off you have to use your points to pay for it.

    Weekday (m, tu, wed, th)2 points
    Weekend (fri, sat, sun) day 4 points
    Holiday 7 points (sometimes this includes the day after , each costing 7 points)

    Now the only way to get points back in your bank is if you work 14 days straight of being on call…then you earn 4 points back again. You can never have more than 30 and if you drop below zero you are suspended. Oh and if you’re sick you have to use your points to pay for days off due to sickness.

    Welcome to BNSF Railway!! Thanks for the new policy!!

    1. Thanks for posting the details. At first I was wondering what the problem was. Absenteeism is a problem everywhere in the supply chain. But your detailed explanation really helped me understand the issue. I have to side with the union with this one. In an age where supply chain companies are trying to entice employees with home time, BNSF seems firmly rooted in the 60’s.

  5. As an 18 year conductor working for the Big Orange I must say that this new attendance policy was not needed. We barely have enough time off as it was. The only way to get any days off was to lay off for 12-24 hours at a time. Also what the R.R. don’t tell the public is that the employees are HOME for 11 1/2 hours to 19 hours and on the train for 10-16 hours, hotel (not nice ones) for 12-36 hours, then train home 10-16 hours. So as an employee you are GONE for 32-68 hours. May I remind you that I’m home for 11 1/2 – 19 hours. Also this is in Bakersfield, California. Other depots have it worse

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.