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Lawmakers Turn Up the Heat on Rail Carrier Attendance Policies

Pressure is mounting on the attendance policies of the country’s largest rail operators as some lawmakers join unions in calling for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to take action in addressing fatigue on the job.

Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Donald Payne (D-N.J.), who serves as chair of the Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, asked FRA Administrator Amit Bose to complete rules on railroad worker fatigue as part of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 (RSIA) in a letter sent Wednesday.

“We write to implore your agency to finalize an outstanding mandate from 2008 to address the condition of railroad worker fatigue and its negative effects on safety,” DeFazio and Payne said in their letter. “After decades of studying the issue, the FRA has a clear understanding of the safety risk posed by fatigue: fatigue symptoms include falling asleep, slower reaction time, attention loss, performance impairment and increased error.”

Railroad operators were required by Congress in 2008 to implement practices that specifically address worker fatigue. Railroads were then required by the FRA in December 2020 to identify safety issues related to fatigue and mitigated those problems.

The two suggest in their letter that attendance policies are not helping in the push for worker safety.

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They pointed specifically to implementation of precision scheduled railroading (PSR), a railroad service model focused on moving trains based on whether a carload is ready to go as opposed to whether the appropriate length of a train has been reached, calling PSR a move made “at the behest of Wall Street investors.”

Proponents of the model stress it ensures on-time schedules for shippers by keeping rail cars moving at all times. Others say PSR further exacerbates the issue of worker fatigue.

Attendance policies that penalize workers for taking sick time, DeFazio and Payne said, “are not designed to encourage workers to make safety-based decisions about their readiness to operate ever-longer, ever-heavier trains” and instead “incentivize employees to show up to work fatigued in order to avoid reprimand or termination.”

“We believe that attendance policies that not only contribute to fatigue but also penalize workers for taking off when fatigued or ill simply cannot co-exist with any serious fatigue risk management program,” the letter went on to say. “The Congressional mandate to mitigate fatigue and other safety-related workers is now a decade late.”

Union leaders representing 30 transportation groups were in Washington this week to solidify their 2022 legislative agenda. The groups are affiliates of the Transportation Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), a group comprised of national and international unions.

Railroad attendance policies, greater support of U.S.-flag fleets when it comes to maritime trade and enhanced safety measures for aircraft crews were among the items on the agenda.

Leaders of rail unions Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers (BLET) and Sheet, Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers—Transportation Division (SMART-TD) hailed DeFazio and Payne’s mention of rail attendance policies.

“We want to make it clear that we are fighting attendance policies at all Class I carriers. Fatigue has long been a problem at CSX, UP, BNSF, NS and other rail carriers, but it has been made much worse because of extreme job cuts resulting from the implementation of PSR coupled with the industry’s determination to force harsh attendance policies upon the remaining workforce,” Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers national president Dennis Pierce and SMART-TD president Jeremy Ferguson said in response to DeFazio and Payne’s letter.

A Texas district court judge ruled in favor of BNSF Railway Co. in late February, in a move that stopped a strike over the carrier’s High Visibility (Hi-Viz) attendance policy. The points-based policy offers workers a bank of points with deductions made for missed days of work. A zero balance would trigger work suspensions, followed by an eventual termination.

BNSF said at the time of the ruling that the policy is aimed at greater “predictability for our train crews while also providing more reliable crew availability.”

Unions have argued the policy is not consistent with terms of the current labor contract and does not stop callouts from occurring.

Five Congressman wrote to the leaders of BNSF, BLET and SMART-TD Monday about working together to resolve the issue over the attendance policy, citing the number of resignations in response to Hi-Viz and the potential impact on the country’s supply chain. The letter was signed by Don Bacon (R-Neb.), Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), David McKinley (R-W.Va.), Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.).

“Even a modest number of those resignations may pose additional stress to our already strained supply chain,” the five representatives said in their letter.

The dispute over the BNSF attendance policy is currently in arbitration.