- Kelly Pettus
Letters For Change
I am writing to ask you to support railroad labor. These workers are specialized, essential, and the lifeblood of the supply chain. I am the wife of a locomotive engineer with 29 years of service. Our labor unions have been in negotiations with BNSF, and other class 1 rail carriers for more than 3 years. The carriers have not come to the table with a reasonable offer for so long that we are near the final steps of the Railway Labor Act, potentially leading to a national strike. A Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) was appointed last month to hear all sides and issued their recommendations. The recommendations fall short of labor expectations, leaving over 100,000 workers feeling disappointed and unheard. Workers are making it clear that what the PEB is proposing isn’t enough to retain the workforce required to keep America’s freight moving. Thousands are prepared to walk. If that happens, the American supply chain will crumble, impacting every household.
The PEB report is 124 pages long, but there are a few points that stand out to me, as the spouse of a railroad worker. Those same points infuriated the men and women who’ve been hauling freight in less than desirable working conditions without a pay increase for far too long. The consensus is, it’s time to resign, and walk away from a career many have invested their life in because the risk and investment is no longer worth it.
“The carriers maintain that capital investment and risks are the reason for their profits, not any contributions by labor”
“The carriers assert that since employees have been fairly and adequately paid for their efforts and do not share in the downside risks if operations are less profitable, then they have no claim to share in the upside either.”
“The Carriers represent that the average hours that a TYE employee (train, yard and engine service employee) works per week is: 34.3 hours (2020); 35.5 hours (2021); and 33.0 hours (2022 to date) and that the average hours that non-operations employees work per week is: 43.4 hours (2020); 40.7 hours (2021); and 42.2 hours (2022). From that data, the Carriers argue that employees are not overworked and should not be fatigued. For a number of crafts, including particularly the operating employees, the number of average hours worked may mask the impact of the large numbers of hours on call, waiting for assignment, or on layover.”
The above claims by the carriers are both insulting and largely false. The assertion made regarding the number of hours a TYE employee works is a true denial of the facts, and our reality. When the carriers state, “employees are not overworked and should not be fatigued,” it is laughable. The carriers are telling on themselves here, because they overlook the number of hours they hold TYE employees hostage without actually paying them.
When a TYE employee works in unassigned service, which is most common, they are on call 24hours a day, 7 days a week. The unpredictability of their work schedule means being tied to their phone, waiting for the phone to ring to receive their next assignment. They cannot commit to anything that takes them more than a few minutes from home, because they are waiting for the phone to ring so they can report for duty within 2 hours (1.5 hours for some). Sometimes, a lineup can suggest they are going to work the next day at 7pm, but changes so quickly that they get called to work today at 2pm. When my husband worked on call, he could be called out at 2am Tuesday and not return home for 48 hours or more. TYE employees are only paid for the hours they are operating freight, and in some cases receive “heldaway” pay if they are left sitting in a hotel for excessive hours, but that varies and isn’t guaranteed in all cases. Even then, they are not being compensated for their total hours away from home. The train lineups have become so unpredictable that crews spend more time sitting on trains or in hotels away from home, than they spend at home. The hotel time is considered time off for “rest.” This is what carriers consider their “day off,” but they cannot attend doctor appointments, their children’s sporting events, funerals, dentist appointments, or take care of any of our life responsibilities because they are in a motel, hours away from home.
I could go on and on with horror stories about the motels they are expected to stay in, some in isolated areas with no basic amenities. Sometimes, after operating freight for 12 hours, they arrive at the motel to find out there are no clean rooms available. My husband has rotted in a motel lobby for 2 hours waiting for a clean room after a 12-hour shift, only to check in and find dirty underwear tucked into his sheets from the guest before. Then, he must wait again for a properly cleaned room. Are railroad executives expected to stay in motels like this during their business travel? Absolutely not.
There have been times he couldn’t get a ride from the away from home terminal to the motel because the motel housekeeper is also the contracted shuttle driver, so he’s sat at the terminal waiting for hours, after 12 hours on duty. Other times, there aren’t any vans available through their contracted transportation company, and that means more waiting. All that waiting means they aren’t getting rest. Are railroad executives being shuttled around in old vans, with high mileage, and a minimum wage driver who is also fatigued? Absolutely not.
Furthermore, they cannot predict when the phone will ring, so much of their down time is full of broken sleep, checking their phones to find out when the phone might ring. This is all on unpaid time. That has never set well with me because the railroads have left my husband sitting in a motel for over 36 hours in the past, with a 12-hour trip each direction. As far as I am concerned, that is a total of 60 hours on duty. That is just one round trip, and they are only paid for the hours they operated freight. Then, when they return to the home terminal and “tie up,” they can be called to operate freight in 12 hours from the time they tied up.
That 12-hour rest period includes their commute time home, and whatever they can fit in at home. It might be a meal, or a few minutes hugging their kids, but they must get to bed right away because the phone is going to ring again. That 12-hour period also includes their commute time returning to work. When you consider that reality, they are lucky to get any rest at all. When you never see your spouse or children, you start sacrificing sleep to savor the moments you do have.
Sometimes, they have been gone over 40 hours already, and they will be getting called to do it all over again after that 12 hour expires. The carriers don’t see it this way, and they have yet to admit the hours they leave their employees sitting without predictability. Then, they make false statements regarding the hours of service because they are omitting the facts surrounding their expectations that employees should be available 24/7, while the carriers mismanage train line ups so badly that they cannot tell when they may go to work or return home. To add insult to injury, the railroads furloughed thousands of workers prior to the pandemic, reducing manpower, forcing the remaining crews to do more with less. We are seeing that at terminals across the country. They do not have enough crews rested to operate freight.
The situation has forced family separation and a quality of life so poor, it’s difficult to convey unless you've lived it. The corporations are so greedy, that they are not properly serving customers that provide commodities. My husband services a short line and a major auto manufacturer. Both are highly dissatisfied with BNSF, and the short line has a book full of documented service failures that are the direct result of jobs being cut. BNSF cut 2 of 3 jobs essential to service customers at his current terminal, despite having contracted days and times to do so. They cut a night job knowing that they aren’t supposed to be delivering to specific locations during the day. They have no plans to put that job back on, so my husband gets yelled at regularly for trying to deliver during the day. How is this his fault? Why is the railroad allowed to cut jobs essential to fulfilling their contracted obligations? It seems to me; workers and customers are absorbing the risk while the carriers absorb the profits. The Oil and agriculture industry are suffering, amongst others, and the cost is passed down to the consumer. The railroads greatly contributed to the supply chain crisis, but they aren’t taking responsibility for it while they claim to absorb all the risk.
“Carriers’ profits increased 676% since 2004 to $22.5 billion in 2021.”
Because of mass layoff before we ever had a pandemic, the railroads can't operate properly. They are implementing attendance policies that make it impossible to be at funerals or with a spouse dying of terminal illness. The workforce has been pushed to the brink, sacrificing their bodies, literally, for the sake of profit. The lack of predictable work schedule makes proper sleep impossible and increases the risk of health issues. Diabetes, sleep apnea, cardiac arrest, obesity, alcoholism, divorce, and mental health issues are all very prevalent as workers try to make a living in an industry they can't just walk away from without sacrificing their retirement. Our earnings are not tied to social security. The job has become unmanageable, with thousands ready to walk no matter the sacrifice.
One loaded railcar is easily worth more than 20 crewman make in a year. Trains are 3 miles long because they are double and tripling the size to avoid paying a 2nd or 3rd crew. This is a greater safety risk to the crew, and the community. Imagine what happens when a 3-mile-long train breaks down and how many crossings it blocks. There are cases where EMS could not get to a person in distress or get a person to a hospital before they died because of it. Carriers would prefer to operate freight with one person, overlooking the potential risk to the person and the community. When a train breaks down or has an emergency, it is the conductor on board who troubleshoots to get the problem corrected. My husband has walked the length of trains miles long while they were stalled at a crossing, determining the issue, and often repairing it himself. The railroad wants to eliminate that role and replace it with a person who would respond in a vehicle, adding to the time it would take to get the train moving again. What happens when that person is responding to another call? More waiting while crossings are blocked. An engineer is qualified to do these repairs but cannot leave the cab unattended. The only one benefiting here is the railroad because they are saving money.
The decisions railroads are making put my husband’s life, and his coworker’s life at risk every day. They run him around in vehicles with over 300,000 miles that can't get through rail yards without getting stuck. They are working people with absolutely no sleep in between trips. If they take a day off to sleep, they get hit with attendance points. The railroads have been allowed to abuse workers in the name of profit, and that's why this is so insulting. They said labor does not contribute to profit during the Presidential Emergency Board hearings, where they also offered a measly increase in pay along with an increase in health premiums, including a tier-based plan that would increase not only premiums but also co-pays and deductibles significantly. The pay increase they proposed doesn’t begin to touch the cost they want to impose on workers. The PEB threw out the carrier’s healthcare recommendation, and suggested a higher increase in pay, but it isn’t enough when you consider the bigger picture.
I've been here for almost 14 of my husband’s 29-year career. This life has changed me and hardened me. It’s stolen a part of my husband's soul because he never gets true rest and has been separated from loved ones for so long that's he disconnected. He functions in a “robot mode” on a regular basis. We know men who are broken head to toe because of collisions, smashed between railroad cars, degloved, losing all skin on their fingers. We loved and lost 2 engineers to cardiac arrest within the past 4 years, one was on duty when he died. We lost an engineer friend to covid. My Father-in-law had a heart attack on duty, but he survived and is retired now. His lifetime health issues require constant proactive care. A few months ago, the crew covering my husband’s job on the night shift, while he was on vacation got shot on the freeway and the conductor died, leaving 4 children behind. During my husband’s career, he has hit a semi-truck, 9 cars, and 2 pedestrians. He has seen the gory outcome of those collisions; none were within his control.
Have railroad executives lived this experience or risked their life to operate a train? They boast a starting pay of $65,000 a year in their posted job openings. They claim the average worker makes $134,000 in pay and benefits. Most workers don’t gross anything close to that. I know the salary of a lawmaker is $174,000, with a lifetime benefits package. Would you put yourself through the carrier’s expectations for a fraction of your salary, and pay for your partially covered health benefits, understanding that your time on the railroad means you will potentially have a shorter life expectancy or major health issues beyond your retirement years? I don’t want to assume, but I can’t imagine your answer is yes.
When carriers claim they are taking all the risk and labor isn’t contributing to profit, they are proving how out of touch they are with reality. They proved they do not care about the people who are doing the hard work. The men and women who haul freight are highly specialized and cannot simply be replaced. They have dedicated hours and years of their life to the railroad, only to be told they aren’t contributing to profits. They are viewed as a cost, and not worth investing in.
The PEB recommended a 24% pay increase over 5 years, and in any other circumstance that might sound like a good deal. The issue is that the current pay is already too low in exchange for the expectations of the job, and the 24% doesn’t elevate the pay enough to justify the risk anymore, especially with the cost of living on the rise. That number assumes employees can be bought, and that their quality life has minimal value. The PEB recommended that health premiums increase from our current 12.5% cost share, capped, to 15% uncapped. It is true that our health premiums are lower than the average American pays today. It overlooks some bigger factors. Railroad workers used to have 100% coverage, with zero out of pocket expenses. That has changed over the years with every contract negotiation.
The demand of the job greatly contributes to health issues that are life threatening in some cases, and the cost to manage our health continues to rise. Then, carriers have imposed such strict attendance policies that it is impossible for anyone to manage their health. They get 0 paid sick time. They get attendance point penalties if they take an unplanned absence for sick time, to care for a sick child, go to the doctor, dentist, or anything the railroad considers an unplanned absence. They earn vacation and personal leave time, but the carriers have the vacation allocation cut to the point that they cannot get approved time off, forcing them to “lay off” to manage their own health and life responsibilities. My 2-year-old was in the hospital after being sick for a week. I also got sick and couldn’t physically care for her. My husband had to spend a night in the hospital, and we were worried about attendance points. BNSF does not accept a doctor note as proof of illness. They will still issue attendance points. Additionally, due to the structure of call times, many workers have been punished or pointed for taking their first scheduled vacation dayor expected to miss it altogether. Despite having approved time off, the railroad can call an employee out prior to the start of their vacation, sending them hours away from home for 2 days. We’ve had that happen with a flight to catch. We aren’t alone in this madness, and that is why you are seeing so much push back from thousands of us. Enough is enough.
Railroad crews didn’t receive time off during the pandemic. In fact, they worked longer hours. They did not receive hazard pay. They were expected to operate freight, sharing a small cab with another person, during a time the rest of the country was advised to isolate and stay home. My husband put his infant daughter at risk by going to work. He put his wife at risk, because I have auto immune disease and was also facing a liver cancer scare in 2020. Our fear of me, or our baby getting covid was emotionally stifling, and he went to work every day regardless. I faced my health issues alone while caring for our infant daughter because our terminal is 1,800 miles away from our families and he reported for duty. I have given up my career to support his because it was necessary for our survival. We lost a second income, and I would consider that absorbing risk. The pay increase they offered doesn’t replace my salary, and that is a loss for our household. The railroads never even implemented consistent safety precautions during covid. Crews were left to fend for themselves. It was the spouses of workers providing care packages for safety, with sanitizers, etc.
The circumstances have become so unmanageable, and we feel gutted by all of it. It is personal to the people who live it. All in the name of profit.
I implore you to rally behind the men and women who keep the American supply chain moving. Without them, railroads cannot move freight. Without them, American households cannot receive essential goods. Without them, shippers cannot get their products delivered. Without them, the railroads cannot earn record profits.
As our crews make their grievances clear to our unions, it is obvious that they aren’t going to settle for the 24% and increase in health premiums. It is also clear that thousands are disgruntled enough to walk off the job, deserting the carriers and the American supply chain they serve. My question is, who will absorb the risk then? I suspect it is the country and a potential collapse of our supply chain, devastating the economy. Regardless of what side of the aisle you are on, there isn’t a constituent out there who will benefit from this.
Please show your support by standing by labor as we demand a fair and reasonable contract. The American supply chain is counting on it. More importantly, railroads can more than afford it, and still achieve record profits.