Railroad workers could get the paid sick days that were at the heart of their threat to go on strike – if the Biden administration steps in with an executive order.
Workers have been unsuccessful getting their demands for paid sick leave met through months of negotiations with the freight rail companies, or through congressional action.
But on Friday, 70 Democrats in Congress signed a letter asking for President Joe Biden or some federal agency to issue an order giving rail workers the seven sick days a year they were seeking.
The letter pointed out that both the House and Senate supported legislation to do so, with some nominal Republican support in both chambers along with nearly unanimous Democratic support. But the legislation failed because it didn’t get the 60 votes it needed in the Senate.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter from the unions’ congressional allies.
But officials with the rail unions said they have been talking to the administration about some kind of executive action to get them the sick time they’ve been seeking, and that they are hopeful action could be forthcoming.
“I mean, the Biden administration has been helpful,” said Greg Hynes, national legislative director for the transportation department of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation Union, (SMART-TD), the largest rail union representing about 28,000 conductors. “Of course, they want to do this. Whether they can do it, we’re going to find out.”
The congressional letter said executive action, either by Biden himself, the Labor Department or the Federal Railroad Administration, is needed because the lack of paid sick days poses a safety hazard to the general public by having rail workers try to do their jobs when sick.
“If a rail worker comes down with COVID, the flu, or some other illness and calls in sick, that worker will not only receive no pay, but will be penalized and, in some cases, fired. We cannot allow that to continue,” said the letter.
The main lobbying group for the nation’s railroads, the Association of American Railroads, said it believes the question of sick days should be addressed in negotiations with the unions.
“Following the conclusion of the latest bargaining round, the industry looks forward to using the new agreements as a springboard for further discussions on the structure of our paid leave benefits, enhancing schedule predictability, and addressing overall work-life balance interests,” said the AAR.
“Railroads remain committed to working with their employees to address these priorities holistically and strike the right balance, be it as an industry or on a railroad-by-railroad basis with each union,” the AAR added.
The railroads insist that the workers can use personal or vacation days if they are too sick to report to work.
“If you wake up sick, no one wants you out on the railroad, and management does not want workers coming to work if they are sick,” said Ian Jefferies, CEO of the AAR, in an interview with CNN last month.
The unions said that members could use their bank of paid time off when sick more easily in the past, but deep staff cuts in recent years have left the railroads so understaffed it is rare that workers can get approval to be off in those instances when they wake up not feeling well. If they do so, not only do they risk losing pay, they also risk being disciplined. And the AAR’s own statement on sick pay availability said workers can call off sick without penalty as long as “they maintain reasonable overall availability.”
The Biden administration asked Congress to vote to block a strike by the unions that could have started this past Friday, saying a work stoppage would be too great a blow to the nation’s economy.
The unions argued they needed the right to strike in order to win things they were seeking at the bargaining table, like sick days.
But despite being disappointed most of the unions’ leadership have been restrained in criticizing Biden for imposing unpopular contracts on their members that did not include sick days.
Asked if the reason that most union leaders did not criticize Biden’s decision was because they are hopeful that he will be willing to issue an executive order to get them the disputed sick days, Hynes replied, “I think you’re answering your own question.”
The rail unions are planning rallies around the country in support of rail workers. The lack of sick days will be a major issue at the rallies.
Among the speakers at the Washington DC rally will be Sen. Bernie Sanders, the main author of the congressional letter. That letter points out that President Barack Obama issued such a rule on federal contractors in 2015, but that it did not cover the unionized rail workers.
“Over 115,000 rail workers in this country are looking to you to guarantee them the dignity at work they deserve and to ensure that our rail system is safe for its workers and for millions of Americans who cross rail tracks every day,” said the congressional letter. “Through executive order, agency rulemaking, and any other applicable authority, we ask that you take quick and decisive action to guarantee these workers paid sick leave.”