How an attendance policy has led the U.S. to the brink of a nationwide rail strike

Workers service the tracks at the Metra/BNSF Railroad Yard in Chicago

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Workers service the tracks at the Metra/BNSF Railroad Yard in Chicago

Scott Olson / Getty Images

Like so many essential workers in the pandemic, the engineers and conductors running the country’s freight trains had it.

They are tired of unpredictable, inflexible work schedules. When they are sick or have a family emergency, they get tired of being punished for taking the day off. They want a better quality of life.

Now, they are raising their voices, threatening a strike that could stop trains across the country on Friday.

Freight railroads and unions representing more than 100,000 rail workers have been negotiating a contract for several years. The stakes are high and a presidential emergency board appointed by President Biden recommended a deal over the summer that would give workers a 24% increase in wages. Both parties – unions and rail companies – have essentially agreed to the board’s economic proposals.

But there remains one major sticking point that could derail all of this: a workplace attendance policy that unions call rigid.

“This abusive and punitive attendance policy is tearing families apart and forcing locomotive engineers and other railroaders to work dangerously exhausting,” the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen said in a statement in May.

Unions now want a change in this policy to ensure that employees can take time off to attend to medical needs when necessary, without fear of discipline.

In the midst of pandemic, railroads introduce a policy that workers hate

Points-based attendance policies are not new. Employers, including Amazon and Walmart, use them as a way to reduce unexpected absenteeism from work. But such policies are completely new to the railroad.

BNSF Railways introduced its version called Hi-Vis in February 2022, saying it would improve sustainability for both employees and customers. Unions say that this has made the situation worse.

Even before the system was introduced, rail conductors and engineers were essentially on call at all times, outside of paid leave and personal leave (which they earned in amounts determined by seniority). When they are called to work, they have either 90 minutes or two hours to report on the job.

Under hi-vis, if they are unavailable to report for work in that window, they are docked with an opening balance of 30. The deduction ranges from 2 to 25 points depending on the day. The more valuable the day, the higher the deduction.

That means Fridays, Saturdays, holidays and so-called “high-impact days,” which include Mother’s Day and Super Bowl Sunday, result in big cuts. When their point balance drops to zero, they face a 10-day suspension.

After that, their points are reset to 15. If their balance becomes zero again, it is a 20-day suspension. If there is a third time, the worker faces dismissal.

There are several ways workers can earn back points, including being available to work for 14 consecutive days.

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A Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) engine pulls a coal-laden train in Chicago, Illinois.

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A Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) engine pulls a coal-laden train in Chicago, Illinois.

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Americans go on a pandemic buying spree after railroads furlough employees

Several factors put pressure on railroads to implement such a system. For one thing, cargo volumes hit record highs in the pandemic, as Americans went on a shopping spree. There were just too many things that had to be moved, and BNSF says it needs a consistent and reliable presence to remain competitive.

However, freight railroads had dramatically reduced their workforce since 2015 in order to reduce costs and increase profits. They introduced changes such as running shorter but longer trains and waiting until the trains were full to leave the terminal.

Martin Oberman, chairman of the Federal Surface Transportation Board, testified in April 2022 that he had raised red flags as the workforce was reduced by 29% – or about 45,000 – employees over the past six years.

With a lean workforce, railway workers describe difficulties in scheduling even for anticipated events. You can’t count on taking your favorite vacations off, especially if you lack seniority. Even for other days, workers are often told that they cannot celebrate the holiday as many others have already requested for it.

The points-based attendance system penalizes anyone who tries to circumvent the system by simply calling sick on the day they requested but were denied.

The system also penalizes people who are really sick or who have emergencies or family matters.

“We had a union member who missed the funeral, and another who had to attend the funeral … and their points came to naught,” says Kathleen Bisbickis, whose husband lived outside Stockton for 24 years. Worked for Railroad. , California. He is also the National President of a group of family members and other supporters of Railway Employees Union called BLET Sahayak.

BNSF stands by Railway Policy

BNSF says it made changes to its attendance policy earlier this year based on employee feedback, including increasing the number of points earned by an employee with good performance. Since introducing its points-based attendance system, the company says it has seen more planned vacation days than before the system was in use.

BNSF also says that this year it increased the number of personal leave days by 25%. The President’s Emergency Board has also recommended an additional day of paid leave as part of the workers’ package.

It’s still not enough for unions. They say that after working hard in the pandemic, workers deserve better.

Bisbicis says the attendance policy has led to a mass exodus of workers.

“I’m not just talking about young people who don’t have a lot of investment so they can start another career,” she says. “I’m talking about the old, invested, 21-plus years in the railways. They’re gone. They’ve left because they don’t want to deal with it.”

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