Death on a train: A tragedy that helped fuel the railroad showdown

Railroad attendance policies were at the heart of the dramatic showdown between the nation’s largest rail carriers and railroad workers, who did not strike after President Biden and other top administration officials brokered a last-minute agreement early Thursday. (Getty Images)
·8 min read

Aaron Hiles, a locomotive engineer, told his wife he "felt different," though he couldn't say exactly how. He made an appointment to see a doctor, his family said. But then his employer, BNSF, one of the largest freight rail carriers in the nation, unexpectedly called him into work.

Failing to show up would invite penalties under a new attendance system BNSF had adopted just a few months earlier, a policy that unions have decried as the strictest in the nation. So Hiles, 51, delayed his doctor's visit, his family said, and went into work.

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A few weeks later, on June 16, Hiles suffered a heart attack and died in an engine room on a BNSF freight train somewhere between Kansas City, Mo., and Fort Madison, Iowa - a tragedy that helped fuel a labor standoff that last week nearly shut down the U.S. economy.

Railroad attendance policies were at the heart of the dramatic showdown between the nation's largest rail carriers and railroad workers, who agreed not to strike after President Biden and other top administration officials brokered a last-minute agreement early Thursday. The deal includes a 24 percent pay increase by 2024 - the largest for railroad workers in more than four decades - and new flexibility for workers to take time off when they are hospitalized or to attend routine doctor's appointments without penalty.

But discontent among rail workers is still brewing. They say few details have been made available about the agreement, which leaves the points-based attendance policy in place for other types of emergencies. And some say they doubt the deal will address their fundamental concerns about quality of life amid painful labor shortages and the continued spread of covid-19.

"This policy is pretty cruel. Everybody is worried about points," said Joel Dixon, a BNSF conductor and Hiles's best friend of more than two decades. "It's always a question whether Aaron would still be around if he made that doctor's appointment. Him and I talked everyday. We were brothers."

BNSF would not discuss the details of Hiles's death but pointed out that employees receive generous vacation packages and are able to take time off when needed without fear of retribution. The company said that it is committed to working with employees when "extenuating circumstances" arise but that the points-based policies are necessary to keep the trains running during a challenging worker crunch.

Still, reaction on social media has been outraged since union leaders walked away with a deal that guarantees rail workers only a single additional paid day off. Some workers said they weren't sure how the negotiators arrived at these policies, in their tug-of-war of proposals in closed-door talks over some 20 hours at the Department of Labor offices.

More specific contract language will be distributed to workers in the coming weeks and explained in educational sessions intended to persuade workers to ratify the agreements, union leaders say.

The stakes are high. Unless union leaders persuade 115,000 workers across 12 unions to vote to ratify contracts, a nationwide rail strike is still possible - and could snarl much of the nation's supply-chain just ahead of the midterm elections.

Points-based attendance policies date to 2020, when Union Pacific, one of the country's largest carriers, rolled out new rules to help ensure staffing during the pandemic. Under these policies, employees are granted a certain number of points, which are deducted when they miss a request to come into work or call out of work unexpectedly. They can gain points by agreeing to be on call for 14 days straight. If their point totals fall too low, penalties can apply up to and including termination.

BNSF adopted its own points-based attendance policy in February 2022. Unions called BNSF's policy "the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier."

BNSF said that the policy was implemented to "incentivize consistent and reliable attendance" amid increased demand for smooth-running services.

Rail carriers have been dealing with high turnover and labor shortages over the past two years. Rail transportation is down 12,500 jobs since the pandemic began, according to the Labor Department.

Under these policies, union leaders say workers have lost points or faced penalties for calling out sick with covid, suffering a heart attack, and getting into a severe car accident. Another employee lost points after missing work when his mother died.

BNSF spokesman Benjamin Wilemon denied those claims, saying that the system may automatically assign points for absences but that employees can explain the situation to their supervisor and regain their points.

Wilemon said that BNSF's attendance policy is designed so that "employees can take time off when needed" and that "employees are encouraged to use their points without fear of retribution." He noted that points are available to use for doctor's visits and that employees have at least three weeks of vacation and 10 personal days available to them.

"It is unfortunate that some would use the death of Mr. Hiles to further their agenda while ignoring the facts of this tragic situation," Wilemon said. "Out of respect for his family, BNSF will not discuss the circumstances around his passing."

Wilemon also noted that workers received a 25 percent increase in personal days this year and that employees cannot work more than six days in a row under federal law.

Union leaders say the federal law allowance is misleading, because time spent stranded in a hotel, after working a long shift, waiting to be called back to work, does not count as a work day.

Just missing a phone call from BNSF to come into work results in a 15-point deduction, BNSF confirmed. Many conductors and engineers live in rural parts of the country with limited cell service. Once called, workers have 90 minutes to two hours to report to work, regardless of the time of day and how far they live from their station. Failing to show up for work on weekends, holidays and other 'high impact' days, such as Super Bowl Sunday and Mother's Day, result in the largest deductions. Although employees can win back points by being available to work 14 days in a row.

More than 700 BNSF employees have quit their jobs since the policy was rolled out in February, union officials say, exacerbating the workload for those who remain.

BNSF's Wilemon said the company has seen more workers taking planned vacation days since rolling out its attendance-based policy. He said that workers take off 24 hours, on average, between each shift and that that number has increased since the attendance policy kicked in. He added that the policy has resulted in fewer attendance-based discipline actions.

BNSF employees say the points-based attendance system has worsened a difficult occupation that already weighs on their mental and physical health. Many railway workers suffer chronic health conditions, such as obesity and sleep apnea, according to union officials. Workers regularly stay in motels for days on end, unsure when they'll be able to return home, exacerbating tensions in already strained marriages and relationships with their children.

Jordan Boone, 41, a BNSF conductor in Galesburg, Ill., has five kids at home. Since the policy went into effect in February, Boone said, he misses most sports games, birthdays, recitals and vacations. If he is lucky, he can squeeze in a few hours with his family a week.

"BNSF came up with this policy, because of all the cuts they've made, and they're trying to do all they can to get us to pick up the slack. They haven't hired enough," Boone said. "The time away from family has a big impact on our mental health. I know people that have missed doctor's appointments for months and months because of this policy."

Aaron Hiles signed up for a rail job at BNSF in Galesburg after serving in the Marines in Desert Storm and Somalia. The job was prestigious, but life on the railroad was tough. Hiles spent weeks away from home, living out of motels, working through Christmas and other holidays, and collecting coins and reading about current events to pass the time.

But things took a turn for the worse when BNSF adopted its updated points policy in February, Hiles's parents said. They noticed Aaron looked "tired and really run down."

"When he told us about the mandate, I said, 'Someone's going to have a heart attack and die,' and he said, 'Yes, they will,'" recalled Donna Hiles, his mother.

On the day Hiles died, two BNSF representatives traveled to his home in Lee Summit, Mo., to inform his wife. She called his parents to let them know their son had passed.

BNSF paid for Hiles's funeral expenses, but his parents never heard directly from them.

"It's devastating," Donna Hiles said. "He was larger than life. He was kindhearted. I dare you to find one person who disliked him. He had hundreds of friends."

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