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Unions critical of BNSF’s new adjustments to attendance policy

Railroad says ‘HiViz’ designed to provide consistency for customers

Two unions are still critical of BNSF's new attendance policy despite recent modifications. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

Two unions are still critical of BNSF’s controversial attendance policy, saying recent adjustments aren’t enough to overcome its shortcomings.

“BNSF’s proposed changes to its HiViz attendance policy are unimpressive. These changes do nothing to address the policy’s fundamental flaws,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, which is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. 

BNSF implemented the “HiViz” policy, which stands for high visibility, on Feb. 1. The railroad has said the policy aims to provide more transparency on absences as well as more predictability for crews around when they will go to work. But union members contend that the policy shortchanges rest time and penalizes employees for time off.

In response to feedback, BNSF has adjusted the policy several times since February, but the unions argue the most recent tweaks still don’t address worker fatigue sufficiently.

Regan said the changes in point collection that are part of the policy incentivizes “fatigued workers to double down. This will not stand.”

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) also criticized recent changes, with BLET President Dennis Pierce calling the changes a “little more than fluff.” He charged that the policy keeps locomotive engineers and other railroaders on call day after day and around the clock.

“The changes in policy show that BNSF’s CEO Katie Farmer and other executives of the railroad know that they have a problem. The railroad’s action also demonstrates that our union’s national campaign to expose its abuses is having an effect,” Pierce said. 

He also contended that BNSF made these changes on Friday without input from the rail unions. 

Pierce argued that the staffing issues facing BNSF and other Class I railroads are due to the railroads’ efforts to cut headcount by 29% collectively over the past six years. As the railroads and the unions hash out a new labor agreement, attendance policies must be at the discussion table, he said. 

“Enough with the fluff. It’s time for BNSF as well as other railroads with similar attendance policies to sit down with their unions and negotiate staffing policies that work for the railroads, their customers and their employees,” Pierce said. The railroads and the unions have been in talks for a new labor agreement since January 2020.

“The HiViz attendance policy exacerbates the breakdown in the supply chain and drives more railroaders away at a time of critical need,” Pierce said. “Not only is the supply chain failing, but this abusive and punitive attendance policy is breaking apart families and causing locomotive engineers and other railroaders to come to work dangerously fatigued.”

BLET and the International Union of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-TD) sought to take action against BNSF’s attendance policy earlier this year by going on strike. But the federal courts sided with BNSF’s argument that a strike would be too disruptive to the supply chain. The unions have since said they will seek arbitration to address their issues over the attendance policy.  

BNSF defends HiViz

In a statement provided to FreightWaves, BNSF said recent tweaks incorporate employees’ suggestions and aim “to provide additional clarity and flexibility to employees.” 

“The policy aims to improve the consistency of crews being available for their shifts to run trains, which in turn drives service consistency and reliability for BNSF’s customers,” the railroad said, adding that the modifications would take effect June 1.

BNSF said there has been no change in how much time off an employee receives and that the HiViz program has resulted in more planned vacation days, while the number of personal leave days increased by 25% this year. Train crew employees have more than three to four weeks of paid vacation and over 10 personal leave days. 

The railroad also said it has been setting aside funds for pay raises, which BNSF will provide to employees once a labor agreement between the Class I railroads and the unions has been reached.

“BNSF team members drive our success and we couldn’t deliver the nation’s goods without them. We are committed to adapting together to meet today’s competitive freight environment,” the railroad said.

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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.