OMAHA, Neb. (AP) – The contract imposed on railroad workers last fall hasn’t solved their quality-of-life issues, but already this year, there are indications that major freight railroads are starting to address some of their concerns about busy schedules that they keep many of them on duty 24/7 with no paid sick time.
However, most workers and their unions remain skeptical of the railways because they say they have yet to see significant action to improve their working lives.
“I hope they are serious about putting their employees first. But the track record is less than stellar,” longtime Union Pacific engineer Ross Grooters said on his way to work in Iowa earlier this week. Grooters is a leader of the Railroad Workers United coalition seeking to help the workers of all 12 railway unions fight for better conditions.
Early signs of progress include a Union Pacific pilot program in the Kansas City area that is testing a new program for engineers that allows them to schedule four days off in a row after working 11 straight days. Also, this month CSX made a number of changes to its attendance policy that allows workers to take time off for medical appointments without being penalized and eases the formula for awarding points to workers when they miss shifts.
There are other negotiations on these quality of life issues going on across all major railroads. Those talks began after Congress blocked a strike by 115,000 railroad workers last month and forced them to agree to a five-year deal that included 24% hikes and $5,000 in bonuses, but failed to address those other concerns. Lawmakers and President Joe Biden said they needed to take action because the dire economic consequences of a train strike would be too great.
It is still too early for those new talks to produce any significant changes. CSX CEO Joe Hinrichs said this week that he’s encouraged by the progress his railroad is making in those conversations with its unions, but he won’t go into detail about what’s being considered or predict how quickly changes could be made.
There are some train jobs that have fairly regular schedules, but many that don’t. Train crews in particular are largely forced to be on call at all times. Workers and their unions say those unpredictable schedules, combined with strict frequency rules put in place by the railways after shedding about a third of all their jobs in recent years as they overhaul their operations, make it hard to take a chance. break for any reason.
Engineer Travis Dye said the new schedules that Union Pacific has been testing with about 60 workers running between Kansas City, Missouri and Coffeyville, Kansas since November have made him stop thinking about leaving the railroad. Even if it meant taking a pay cut, Dye said he was seriously considering getting another job with a better schedule.
“It got to the point where if something didn’t change, it wasn’t worth staying,” said Dye. “I think a lot of guys feel that way too, not just me. I know there are a lot of guys who are still actively looking.
Dye said being able to make definite plans with his family or knowing he can tackle a project around the house like installing the new water heater he just installed without being interrupted by a call from work is great. Too often, she’s said she’s had to cancel plans she made with her 16-year-old daughter after she’d already circled something on the calendar that she wanted to do with him.
“It’s huge for me not to have to break her heart,” said Dye, 40.
Another experienced engineer involved in the pilot, Tyler Ray, said not being able to know when it will leave has clearly taken a toll on his personal life and the lives of other railroad workers.
“I’ve been through a divorce before,” Ray said. “I don’t think that was all, but the unpredictability and not being around a lot of things didn’t help.”
That’s why the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen’s first vice president, Mark Wallace, is hoping UP will agree to rapidly expand this new programming model, or something similar, across the railroad.
Wallace said he remembers all too well growing up as a railroad son and spending many Christmas mornings without his father there. He later had to miss several Christmases with his children while he was away driving a train.
“I’m trying to pressure UP to do it sooner rather than later,” Wallace said. And he said having more regular schedules would help the railroads recruit the new workers they need to run all the freight companies they want them to deliver.
Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz said he likes the new timetable concept, but the railroad still needs to analyze it more before expanding it to see if it helps ensure workers are more consistently available when they’re scheduled to work. also giving the engineers the ability to know when they will leave. The railroad has yet to test any new scheduling models for conductors who work alongside engineers during train operation.
Fritz has also said publicly that he wants to work towards providing workers this year with the paid sick leave that the railroads refused to give them during negotiations last fall, but he said on Tuesday it was a complicated matter and ‘our employees they say predictable hours are the most important thing to work on first.
While track maintenance workers in the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division are not on call like train crews are, they are increasingly being sent out on the road for days at a time to tackle construction projects and repairs, prompting many to reconsider whether the work is worth the sacrifice, union spokesman Clark Ballew said.
“To date, we haven’t seen genuine concern from management about these quality-of-life decisions that our members increasingly struggle with,” Ballew said. “Their focus continues to be honed on operations and… profits.”