GUERNSEY – The rail industry is in crisis along with many other industries in America who not only had to find creative ways to keep afloat during COVID, but now as the economy has been recovering, the problems switch to living in the collateral damage of the sanctions and actions imposed in the midst of the pandemic.
The town of Guernsey suffered greatly during COVID seeing many layoffs and promoting early retirements. Now there is not a sufficient workforce to help carry the load and the workers who remained in the employ of BNSF are overworked and not being granted the time off they need to recharge their batteries and reconnect with their families.
Although a study has yet to be established on the effect of broken families as the result of BNSF policies and the hardship incurred on the American family, but family members who are feeling the stress stepped up as part of a nationwide effort to bring awareness to BNSF policies.
According to Martin Oberman, chairman of the Surface Transportation Board, “Moving to the present day, the rail industry clearly is struggling to provide adequate and reliable rail service. Although the rail industry has been hit by many of the problems the pandemic has visited on all businesses, the railroads and their dedicated workers delivered for the public during the pandemic’s earliest and most uncertain days. Yet, as the Nation’s economy has recovered, recent Class I business practices have undermined industry preparedness and service reliability. In particular, over the last 6 years, the Class I railroads have cut their work 3 force by 29%—a loss of 45,000 employees. With demand back, and against the backdrop of these significant labor cuts and other changes, railroads face major holes in their service, with loaded trains sitting for days for lack of crews, factories struggling to obtain needed raw materials or deliver their finished products, farmers straining to obtain adequate fertilizer at the beginning of planting season, food producers finding it difficult to obtain grain and feed for their livestock, and on and on. The severity of the problem, and its impact on our Nation’s food and fuel supplies, is distressing and has necessitated immediate Board action.”
Oberman was testifying before the United States House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials of the Hearing On “Board Member Views on Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization May 12.
“Railroads, rail users, rail labor, and rail experts all attribute the current service disruptions principally to a shortage of labor,” Oberman said To understand the cause of that shortage one must first take into account the Class I railroads’ actions in significantly cutting their labor forces in the years leading up to the pandemic. Then, in the spring of 2020, in response to a precipitous decline in economic activity that immediately followed the onset of the pandemic, the same railroads cut 4 their already reduced labor forces even more, by as much as an additional 20%. They made these cuts despite the fact that neither they nor anyone else could have known at that time how long this unprecedented pandemic would last and when the economy would begin to recover, requiring the railroads to again be fully staffed. Nor could they have been confident that the laidoff workers would promptly return if asked to do so.”
According to Kevin Knutson, Local Chairman, SMART-TD LOCAL 465, “BNSF Railway employees, family members, retirees and members of the public held an informational picketing on May 10, 2022 across the nation. In Gillette and Guernsey, employees of both Guernsey and Gillette took part with a total turnout of 100 individuals.”
“The goal of this informational picket was to raise awareness with the public of the BNSF Railway policies that are not only degrading our workforce and harming our families but directly impacting our communities and increasing the cost of goods for all Americans,” Knutson said. “The informational picket was also an effort to spotlight how BNSF Railway is directly at fault for the regressive policies causing these hardships.”
Protracted policies that started before the pandemic have reduced the workforce. Now, a mandated policy has reduced time off for existing employees, causing a fatigued workforce with limited family time, and increasing public safety concerns. Here are a few policies that workers and families are wanting the public to be aware of:
Withholding employee contracts for the last three years.
For the last three years employees have worked without contracts due to the company’s unwillingness to bargain in good faith the contracts.
Hi-Viz attendance policy
On February 1, 2022, the egregious attendance policy known as “Hi-Viz” was mandated. The point-based system has further reduced time off for an under-resourced workforce and created a regressive working environment of despair and indignity. The fear of losing career-long points created by this policy, has resulted in employees working while sick and fatigued to escape censure and/or dismissal. This policy puts safety in the backseat and employees at risk.
Reduction of workforce
Before the pandemic, BNSF Railway began reducing workers on the extra board who provide relief support for fatigued/sick/family leave workers and reduced the overall workforce. Instead of setting the standard for other class 1 rail providers in the country, they are leading the way in the degradation of their workforce safety through practices and policies.
The BNSF Railway is reporting all-time high profits. At the same time, it is lying to their customers, employees and inflating costs that directly impact the American people and the customers we serve. Slowing service and increasing customer costs in the supply chain adds to end-consumer inflation of the price of goods. This is corporate interference, not a ship stuck in a canal. BNSF Railway employees are working tirelessly to compete with a company that is more concerned with a profit number than their customers or workforce.
“Once again, the informational picket was organized by the family members, employees, and retirees who are exhausted of the constant abuse from BNSF Railway,” Knutson said. “Through their efforts, they hope to raise awareness and inspire a change in policies. We, as families, friends, employees and retirees, have never experienced such an antagonistic approach to a workforce and their employees before. Protracted policies have created a reduced workforce that started before the pandemic, and now have mandated a policy to reduce time off for existing employees. Employees of BNSF Railway call for their company and railways around the nation to start SERVING customers instead of making excuses for policies and practices that highlight their corporate greed. While our families are suffering, the impacts will stretch beyond the immediate BNSF Railway. We need the public to know.”
In Guernsey, retired railroad worker Randy Peterson and wife Donna were a part of a group that were picketing near the “Welcome to Guernsey” sign at the eastern edge of town overlooking the BNSF rail yard.
“I think this picket has a lot to do with availability policies,” he said. “They’re making these guys work all the time and they are restricting their time off. They are limiting sick days, vacation days, how many people can be off at a terminal at one time and it’s making it very difficult for people to be off. From what I understand, they’ve had a lot of people quit.”
Guernsey resident, Lisa Schuldies who has children working for BNSF in Gillette and she mentioned that she has listened to her daughter’s concerns over the high visibility policies.
“They are not being able to take time, they are penalized points,” Schuldies said. “My daughter is a conductor and my son-in-law is also a conductor and they are only allocated a certain number of points. Once their points are gone, they can lose their job. It’s very likely that they will lose their job, which has resulted in less of a workforce.”
Schuldies said that due to the lack of workers and the disorganization in the schedule, there are times that her daughter, a mom of two children may be away from home for up to 36 hours.
“I understand that railroads may not be a family business, I think that we need to take a look at this,” Schuldies said. “I think they need to take better care of their employees than they have been.”
“It’s been a big fight since I hired on,” Randy Peterson said. “They’ve always fought us for time off, and now it’s getting to the point where they’re just dictating what they want and it goes right past the union. The union doesn’t have any teeth.”
The problems are not going away any time soon and the railroad may lose valuable people who were invested in when they trained for specific high-level positions. Oberman’s outlook was not positive.
“Keep in mind that the workers dismissed by the Class I railroads are highly skilled and held positions that require lengthy training,” Oberman said. “Replacing them is difficult and requires months of rigorous training before they can actually begin the work of moving trains. Since June 2020, as the demand for freight rail service quickly rebounded, the railroads have not been able to achieve a commensurate and appropriate increase in workforce levels. Many of the previously laid-off workers had found other careers and never returned to the railroads. And, as explained at our recent hearing, the Class I railroads have found it difficult to recruit and train new employees. The railroads have noted broader economic trends in the labor market, while rail labor has reported the particular difficulty in the rail industry directly caused by increased job uncertainty, worsened working conditions and insufficient incentives. Given the challenges the railroads now recount regarding hiring and retaining employees, and the aforementioned difficulty in remedying the labor shortage problem quickly, I am not optimistic about significant improvement in rail service in the near term.”