Railroad strike negotiations held up by battle over sick time policies

The top labor negotiator in talks to avert a railroad strike accused BNSF and Union Pacific of holding up progress.Specifically, Dennis Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, or BLET, said the companies rejected the union’s proposal for sick time policies.”The primary resistance comes from Union Pacific and BNSF because of the attendance policies they have adopted which have treated workers so poorly,” Pierce told CNBC. “We’re just looking for time away from work to address our medical issues. Union Pacific and BNSF attendance policies are assessing (penalty) points to our members when they just want to take time off for their regular medical appointments.”Attendance policies have been a point of contention for unions for years. The White House’s Presidential Emergency Board, or PEB, recommended any attendance policy disputes are best resolved in the grievance and arbitration process.BNSF, which is owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, flatly rejected Pierce’s claim, calling it “categorically false.””Rail employees are provided with significant time off. Generally, train crew employees have over three to four weeks of paid vacation and over 10 personal leave days. Depending on craft and seniority, these numbers can extend to five weeks of vacation in addition to 14 paid holidays and/or paid leave days,” BNSF told CNBC. “The number of Personal Leave Days was increased by 25% this year which makes it easier for employees to take time off.”A BNSF train near Boulder, Co.David A. Grogan | CNBCUnion Pacific, meanwhile, said it “continues to push for a prompt resolution that provides historic wage increases to employees and allows the railroads to prevent further disruption to the struggling supply chain.”Pierce said the unions withdrew their proposal for paid sick leave and substituted their request for unpaid sick time. PEB recommendations suggested the unions withdraw their paid sick leave proposal based on the existing paid time off benefits given to employees.Union negotiators offered the rail carriers a one-page, single-sided proposal to spare employees disciplinary points if they schedule routine medical visits in advance for days they would otherwise have to work, according to Pierce.”You have to understand these workers are not on scheduled days. They have no scheduled days off. They work whenever they get called,” he said. “We are just asking for our workers to be able to go get their medical appointment done and not have to be at work that day.”The Association of American Railroads, in turn, provided CNBC with its employee time off policy sheet. “Ongoing negotiations are being collectively handled on a national, multi-employer basis,” a spokesman for the group said.No backing downPierce praised some items in the PEB’s recommendations, but said it didn’t come through on quality of life issues.”Life isn’t planned medical events aren’t planned. People need to be allowed to enjoy the fruits of their labor instead of just having to be at work every day,” he said. “So I think the key issue is this and there’s no way we can back away from it.”Pierce said he has been in touch with members of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet. He told CNBC the unions do not intend to blink on the sick time argument.”Strikes are a last resort. It does not help anyone because the employees lose money, and the companies lose money,” he said. “We’re not here to hurt the economy.”Ripple effects from the labor strife are affecting other parts of the infrastructure. Starting Tuesday, Amtrak canceled some of its longer-distance rail services in anticipation of a service disruption.Routes between Chicago and the West Coast along Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, California Zephyr, and Empire Builder are canceled. Portions of Amtrak’s Texas Eagle route between Los Angeles and San Antonio are also suspended. Amtrak is calling the cancelations a “phased adjustment” warning the disruptions could “significantly impact intercity rail service.”

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