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'Hotel, depot, home, hotel, depot, home' | BNSF engineer gives behind-the-scenes look at life working for the railroad

"When you're on call 24/7/365," he said, "everywhere you go you have your phone in your pocket, you're worried about missing a call."

GALESBURG, Ill. — The two largest railroad unions that represent conductors and engineers are expected to announce the results on Monday of members' votes on the tentative contract agreement.

Ballots were sent out to Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen a few weeks ago. Voting ends at 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 20.

The deal was reached in the early hours of Sept. 15 after nearly three years of negotiations between the major freight railroads and the 12 railroad unions. It came less than 24 hours ahead of the end of a federally imposed "cooling-off period," averting a strike of 115,000 workers. 

So far, seven of the smaller unions have voted to ratify the contract, while three have voted against it.

RELATED: Railroads reject sick time demands, raising chance of strike

The five-year deal, retroactive to 2020, includes a 24% wage increase over the life of the contract until 2024. They'll also receive annual $1,000 bonuses.

"Everyone I've talked to, money's not the thing. I mean, the money's good," said Joel Lewis, a Galesburg-based BNSF engineer. "A lot of people are upset because there's no quality of life issues that are being put in there."

Lewis has worked for BNSF for 12 years and has been an engineer for 10. Those quality-of-life concerns include the ability to take days off, something that's extremely difficult for conductors and engineers, who represent roughly half of all rail workers.

The demanding schedules have them on call 24/7. There are no set days off because the railroads can't predict exactly when trains will be ready to leave and the trains run around the clock.

When Lewis gets the call to report to work, he has two hours to do so.

"When you're on call 24/7/365, when the only time you're not subjected to call is the 10 hours when you tie off or get off work, everywhere you go, you have your phone in your pocket. You're worried about missing a call," he said. "It's a looming cloud. It's not peaceful."

RELATED: 'It's a slap in the face': BNSF workers consider strike over new attendance policy

Missing a call, under BNSF's Hi-Viz attendance policy, means getting docked points. Hi-Viz gives employees a total of 30 points for the rest of their careers, but employees are docked points for days taken off outside of allocated vacation days. Weekends and holidays are worth more points. The only way to earn points back is to stay marked up, or work, 14 days in a row. Workers can be disciplined after losing all their points. 

That policy began in February of this year and had BNSF workers ready to strike before it took effect, however, they were blocked by a federal judge in Texas.

Lewis said the policy has "frustrated" workers over the last nine months.

RELATED: 'I have never seen it this bad' | Railroad union president criticizes BNSF working conditions

BNSF has maintained that the policy has made it easier for workers to take days off in a statement:

"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."

During contract negotiations, the unions had requested 15 paid sick days. The railroads did not agree.

"I was under no delusion that I thought anything was going to change of it through the contract," Lewis said. "I thought we were never gonna get (15 days), but I thought a couple, you know if we got a couple, that would help out."

In the tentative agreement, unions won the right to take unpaid time off to attend medical appointments without penalty. That can be for three instances throughout the year but must be scheduled 30 days in advance.

"I don't know when I'm going to be sick, but it does help in the framework that doctor's appointments are hard to get and it helps with that," Lewis said. "But it's kind of like, does it really? If they left everything the way it was before (Hi-Viz) we could have done that anyway, but it's because they changed the attendance issue is what it makes it more difficult."

In order to help people understand the unpredictable schedule he works, Lewis spent the month of October documenting what it's like working for the railroad.

"It's hotel, depot, home, hotel, depot, home," he said. 

He said in an average month, he'll spend around 200 hours on the train and another 200 hours in a hotel room waiting to take the train home.

In a series of videos sent to News 8, he showed all the different times he was called to work. One was at midnight and he had to report at 2 a.m. One time in the hotel he was supposed to get on an 8 p.m. train, but it got changed to 2 in the morning.

"That's where this job takes over your life are the projections," he said. "Obviously they can't control exactly when the trains show up."

He chose to take off two days, and lose points, to be home for his wife's birthday and his daughter's football cheer senior night. But because of that decision, it meant he ended up missing something else.

"It looked like I was going to be able to attend my brother's wedding on Saturday, but everything stopped moving, so I sat and waited all day today to go," he said in a video to News 8. "What I needed was a trip early this morning or late last night to get a chance to get round trip to get back in time for Saturday morning for his wedding on Saturday afternoon. That's not gonna happen now. But hey, my wife and kids will be able to go."

He described the trains as not always being clean and the long 12-hour days spent in an 8x8 box.

Currently, he's one of two people in that 8x8 box. However, workers are concerned about railroads trying to push forward with one-person crews. The tentative agreement doesn't mandate two-person crews. In a one-person crew situation, as the engineer, Lewis would be the one left by himself.

"It's scary for me because I would be the one left on the train by myself," Lewis said. "(One time I) had dropped the conductor off at one point because we had issues, we ran out of hours of service, he got picked up in a van and I was stuck there for three hours on the side of the hill in the rain at 3 in the morning. I never had panic attacks before, ever. And then after that incident, sometimes just a little bit. The main thing is, you need the other guy there with you."

He thinks fewer people in younger generations will want to work for the railroads because of the quality of life issues.

"They don't want your money. They want their quality of life," he said. "There's things (the railroad) can do (to make it better), it just involves spending money."

As far as the vote on the new contract, Lewis isn't saying which way he voted.

"I'm not saying we need to take everything there," he said. "People don't understand you're never going to get everything you want. If you can get little bits at a time, kind of stick your foot in the door, leaves it open to negotiations later. It's not what everybody wants to hear, but there is a positive. If you can get this one passed, that could lead to other things down the road."

All 12 unions have to ratify their contracts to avoid a strike. To date, Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (Teamsters), Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen and Int. Brotherhood of Boilermakers have voted no. District 19 (IAM) previously voted no, but has since voted yes on a new tentative agreement. The other six unions that have voted yes are Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, Int. Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Transportation Communications Union (IAM), National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (SEIU), American Train Dispatchers Association and SMART Mechanical Department.

If any one of the 12 unions fail to reach an agreement with the freight carriers, a strike or lockout by the rail companies could come as early as Dec. 9. If one union strikes, all the others honor the picket lines.

About 30% of U.S. freight is moved by railroads. If a strike were to happen, some Amtrak trains and commuter rail systems that operate on the same tracks would come to a halt. The railroad industry has warned it would be an economic disaster and cost as much as $2 billion a day.

Congress can step in to prevent a strike by extending a cooling-off period or by imposing a contract that would match the recommendations of Biden's Presidential Emergency Board. That contract would look slightly different than the tentative agreement union members have been voting on.

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