FORT MADISON, Iowa — Three months after a new attendance policy took effect for workers with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, dozens gathered Sunday, May 15 in Fort Madison, Iowa, to protest it.
Under the Hi-Viz points-based policy that began in February, BNSF workers are given 30 points for the rest of their careers and docked points - anywhere from two to seven - for days taken off outside of already allocated vacation days. They can earn points back by working 14 days straight, but the total number of points can never exceed 30.
Workers with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART-TD) unions threatened to strike over the policy.
However, on Jan. 25, a federal judge in Fort Worth, Texas, sided with BNSF and granted the railway a temporary restraining order that blocked about 17,000 union workers from striking. He said a strike would have a drastic impact on the nation's supply chain.
Railway workers never have set days off, one engineer told News 8. Instead, he said, they were told to be available 75% of the time, including holidays and weekends, but the new Hi-Viz policy means workers are expected to be available more than 90% of the time.
According to BNSF, the policy was designed to improve "predictability and transparency for our crews around when they will go to work."
A statement from the railway to News 8 reads, in part:
It is important to note that there has been no change in how much time off an employee receives. More than 50% of train crew employees work less than 40 hours a week on average. Generally, train crew employees have over 3 to 4 weeks of paid vacation and over 10 Personal Leave Days. The number of Personal Leave Days was increased by 25% this year which makes it easier for employees to take time off.
In fact, since starting HiViz, we have seen more planned vacation days taken than before the change. In addition, employees can't work more than 6 days in a row under federal law. Time off between each shift averages around 24 hours and since the attendance policy was implemented, we have seen that increase.
Meanwhile, BLET National President Dennis Pierce said getting paid time off approved can be a challenge.
"Those have to be approved, and they (BNSF) have allocations, and when the allocations are full, they just reject your request even though they may have staffing," Pierce said to News 8. "So that leads people to have to take unpaid time off. That's what then gets them into these points systems. So your paid leave doesn't hit you for points in most cases, some it does, but most it doesn't. The unpaid leave that they force people to take because they won't give them access to their paid leave is what now gets them in trouble with the policy."
He said it has no exceptions for medical or fatigue, which is common in the railway industry. Pierce said one worker recently underwent emergency gallbladder surgery and after being released from the hospital, he had lost 28 points.
"As we say, you either go to work sick and tired or you get fired," Pierce said. "That's really what this has come down to the idea that people can't go tend to their family's medical issues or their own, and at a time of a pandemic is ludicrous to us."
"It's unanimously hated," said retired BNSF engineer Jeff Kurtz. "They're on duty all the time. I mean, they're literally chained to the railroad at all times."
Kurtz worked for BNSF for 40 years before retiring in 2014. He was hired in 1974 with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway before it merged with Burlington Northern.
"What I would tell people is you'll miss things, but you weren't expected to miss everything. You could take off," Kurtz said. "I was around for the birth of all three of my children. I was around for all the big events. I coached baseball. I was the president of the wrestling club. I was able to do all that stuff that these people can't do anymore."
Kurtz helped organize Sunday's rally with the Lee County Labor Chapter to protest the Hi-Viz policy and to protect the safety of workers and those living along the railroad.
"We want to make sure that everybody understands the consequences that could happen if these Hi-Viz policies continue or even get worse," said Lee County Labor Chapter President Penny Logsdon.
They're worried about worker fatigue.
"These guys are up all hours of the night," Vice President Carrie Duncan said. "They haul dangerous loads on these trains and they need to be alert. If something happens along the railway, citizens of our communities or cities can be adversely affected."
"We want our brothers and sisters to be safe. We want the community to be safe, and we think that the struggle they're going through right now is something that needs wider attention," Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO President Charlie Wishman said. "They're just fighting for the right to be able to have a life of their own and a life with their family outside of work and to make sure that they aren't constantly on duty just at the whim of the company when it comes to scheduling."
BNSF told News 8 it made several changes to the Hi-Viz program a month into its rollout. The company also said it has been gathering feedback from employees and will make more changes, effective June 1, "to provide additional clarity and flexibility to employees."
The railway did not say what those changes are.
Pierce said BNSF has not consulted with BLET or SMART-TD about any changes.
"I have personally taken meetings with my counterpart at SMART-TD and with the upper management of BNSF early on to try to get them to bargain on this," Pierce said. "Negotiate with us. Let's come up with a solution. We know you need people, we want you to be a successful company because that creates jobs, but not like this. They have just outright rejected every attempt made by the unions to try to discuss this. Instead, they say they go out and they have the one on ones with the employees without the benefit of union representation."
BLET and SMART-TD said upwards of 700 workers have left BNSF since the Hi-Viz policy was enacted, but BNSF told News 8 it has more employees now than it did a year ago. The company added it's currently training 300 new employees.
Repeatedly, the idea of one-person train crews has been brought up throughout the discussions about Hi-Viz. Workers previously told News 8 they believed the policy is being used to push one-person crews through, and several speakers talked about why they're concerned about it during the rally in Fort Madison.
"The fact that they would like to see that only one person is the entire crew of a train is nothing but dangerous," Logsdon said.
BNSF's 17,000 union workers are among 105,000 with the biggest freight railroads that are awaiting a new contract.
Contract talks began in fall 2019, and an agreement has still yet to be reached between the Class 1 rail carriers and the unions. Those talks have included whether the railroads should be able to cut crews from two people down to one in some circumstances. Unions oppose the change partly because of safety concerns.
Pierce said union workers have not had a contract raise since July 2019.
"It's not that our members are working without a contract, they're working without a raise," he said. "They're working without improvements to the contract because the contract stays in effect. At the same time, the Railway Labor Act prevents the railroad from adopting changes to the contract while we bargain."
However, BNSF was able to implement a new attendance policy because it's just that, a policy. Attendance is not a negotiated contract item like Pierce said the unions would like it to be.
"They (BNSF) either have to bargain or arbitrate. They won't bargain. If we win an arbitration, they ignore it," he said. "It's time for this to be a negotiated item. And that's where we're pushing in our final push through contract negotiations to try to get that accomplished to where not only are these policies removed, but everyone has access to predictable days off."
In a statement to News 8 regarding ongoing contract negotiations, BNSF said, in part:
BNSF remains committed and eager to work toward a swift and fair resolution to the collective bargaining process. In anticipation of an agreement, BNSF continues to set aside funds for pay raises. The sooner an agreement is reached, the sooner our union-represented employees get pay increases and we can all focus on what we do best-running one of the largest freight rail networks in the world.
The railway said this is the first update to its attendance policy in 20 years.
BNSF operates 32,500 miles of track in 28 states and three Canadian provinces. It runs an average of 1,200 trains per day, and it transports a mixture of agricultural, consumer and industrial products.