OMAHA, Neb. – The contract imposed on railroad workers last fall didn't resolve their quality-of-life issues, but already this year there are indications the major freight railroads are starting to address some of their concerns about demanding schedules that keep many of them on call 24-7 without paid sick time.
Still, most workers and their unions remain skeptical of the railroads because they say they have yet to see meaningful actions toward improving their lives on the job.
“I hope that they’re serious about putting their employees first. But the track record is less than stellar,” longtime Union Pacific engineer Ross Grooters said while on his way to work in Iowa earlier this week. Grooters is a leader with the Railroad Workers United coalition that tries to help workers in all 12 rail unions fight for better conditions.
The early signs of progress include a Union Pacific pilot program in the Kansas City area that's testing out a new schedule for engineers that lets them plan on having four days off in a row after working 11 days straight. In addition, CSX made a set of changes to its attendance policy this month that allows workers to take time off for medical appointments without being penalized and eases the formula for docking workers points when they miss shifts.
There are other negotiations about these quality-of-life issues going on at all the major railroads. Those talks started after Congress blocked 115,000 rail workers from going on strike last month and forced them to accept a five-year deal that included 24% raises and $5,000 in bonuses but didn't address these other concerns. Lawmakers and President Joe Biden said they had to intervene because the dire economic consequences of a rail strike would be too great.
It's still too soon for those new talks to yield 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 wouldn't go into any detail about what is being considered or predict how quickly changes might be made.
There are some railroad jobs that have fairly regular schedules, but many do not. Train crews, in particular, are largely forced to be on call all the time. Workers and their unions say those unpredictable schedules, combined with the strict attendance rules railroads put in place after eliminating roughly one-third of all their jobs in recent years while overhauling their operations, make it hard to take time off for any reason.
Engineer Travis Dye said the new schedules Union Pacific has been testing out with about 60 workers on a run between Kansas City, Missouri, and Coffeyville, Kansas, since November got him to 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 just got to the point where if something hadn’t changed, it just wasn’t worth staying," Dye said. "I think a lot of guys feel that way too — not just me. I know there’s 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 hot water heater he just put in without being interrupted with a call to work is amazing. All too often, he said he has had to cancel plans he’s made with his 16-year-old daughter after she’d already circled something on the calendar she wanted to do with him.
“That’s huge for me not to have to break her heart,” said Dye, 40.
Another experienced engineer involved in the pilot project, Tyler Ray, said not being able to know when he'll be off has clearly taken a toll on his own personal life and that of other railroaders.
“I’ve already been through one divorce," Ray said. "I don’t think that was all of it, but the unpredictability and not being around for a lot of things didn’t help.”
That’s why the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen’s First Vice President Mark Wallace hopes UP will agree to expand this new scheduling model, or something similar to it, across the railroad quickly.
Wallace said he remembers all too well growing up as the son of a railroader and spending many Christmas mornings without his dad there. He later had to miss several Christmases with his own kids while he was away operating a train.
“I’m trying to put pressure on UP to do this sooner rather than later,” Wallace said. And he said having more regular schedules would help railroads recruit the new workers they need to handle all the freight companies want them to deliver.
Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz said he likes the new schedule concept, but the railroad still needs to analyze it more before expanding it to verify that it helps ensure workers are more consistently available when they’re scheduled to work while also giving engineers the ability to know when they’ll be off. The railroad has yet to test out any new scheduling models for the conductors who work alongside engineers when operating trains.
Fritz has also said publicly that he wants to work this year on providing workers with the paid sick leave railroads refused to give them in the negotiations last fall, but he said Tuesday that's a complicated question and “our employees tell us that predictable schedules is the most important thing to work on first.”
Even though track maintenance workers in the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division union aren't on call the way train crews are, they are increasingly being sent on the road for days at a time to tackle construction projects and repairs, prompting many to reconsider whether the job 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 wrestle with,” Ballew said. “Their focus continues to be honed on operations and ... the bottom line.”