Railroad workers could leave the industry after Congress forced through a contract that does not provide them any paid sick days, an exodus that would ripple through an economy reliant on freight railroads to transport goods.
The exit of thousands of train conductors and engineers would be felt by major corporations and U.S. consumers alike. It could slow the delivery of food, fuel and online orders while strangling already-shaky supply chains.
The economy was almost upended by a nationwide strike before lawmakers intervened last week to enforce a deal many workers found lacking.
Those who were holding out hope for a strong contract might look for a new job after the deal failed to provide paid sick leave or put an end to strict attendance policies and strenuous schedules that require workers to be on call constantly, rail workers say.
“I don’t think you’ll just see half of the workforce disappear, but you’ll see a good percentage, and we can’t afford for anybody to leave because we’re so undermanned as it is,” said Hugh Sawyer, an Atlanta-based engineer at Norfolk Southern.
Any exodus of workers would only exacerbate staffing shortages brought on by railroads laying off around 30 percent of their workforce over the past six years. That, in turn, has led to exhausted workers and persistent delays and cancellations when demand for shipped products spiked.
Business groups have warned that the disruptions, which are driven by staffing shortfalls, helped fuel inflation.
Sawyer, who serves as treasurer of grassroots rail reform group Railroad Workers United, said that younger workers who place more emphasis on work-life balance will be the first to leave.
“Most of these people live in or around metro Atlanta. The economy’s booming. They will find a job elsewhere,” Sawyer said.
Workers say that some employees could leave as soon as they receive back pay and cash bonuses, which will average roughly $16,000 per person. Railroads will dole out that money within 60 days.
The Association of American Railroads (AAR) said in a statement that carriers hear workers’ concerns and agree that “conversations about work-life balance issues must continue.” The industry group said that railroads’ train and engine workforce has grown 8 percent since January.
“The benefits and compensation packages are part of why that is the case — both of which are seeing historic increases through this deal with average wages and compensation rising to $160,000 over the course of the contract,” an AAR spokesperson said. “Railroading is difficult work, and our employees are compensated accordingly in recognition of that.”
The contract signed into law Friday, negotiated with the help of the Biden administration, provides 24 percent raises over five years and allows workers to take three unpaid days off for medical appointments, a provision that wasn’t included in previous proposals.
But it doesn’t offer any paid sick days, adjust schedules or remove attendance policies that penalize workers for missing time to attend family gatherings or other scheduled events.
“They talk about the money in this contract. It’s just not worth it to have to give up what these people have to give up,” said Jeff Kurtz, a Railroad Workers United member who worked as a locomotive engineer in Iowa for 40 years.
Kurtz said that railway workers might take less money to work factory or trucking jobs that offer consistent hours and are always hiring.
Congress last week overrode four unions that had not ratified agreements with railroads. Those include train and engine workers at SMART-TD, the largest rail union, who rejected the tentative contract last month.
Unions lobbied lawmakers to add seven days of paid sick leave to the deal, while railroads pushed back, arguing that Congress would set a dangerous precedent by modifying the contract.
The House passed the sick leave measure with the support of every Democrat and three Republicans. Just six GOP senators voted for the proposal, dooming its chances in the upper chamber. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was the only Democrat to vote against it.
“The senators who opposed the measure all have paid sick days, as do their staff. Apparently, they believe the nation’s rail workers are ‘essential’ to the American economy and supply chain, but not essential enough to deserve the same protection as them when becoming ill,” SMART-TD said in a statement following the vote.
Union officials have sought to keep hope alive by assuring workers that they are still pushing for paid sick leave. That could come in the form of another legislative effort or an executive order that requires federal contractors, including railroads, to provide paid sick days.
At the bill signing, President Biden said he would continue to fight for paid sick leave, but didn’t offer specifics on how he would go about it.
“It’s a really good bill lacking only one thing, and we’re going to get that one thing done before it’s all over,” Biden said.
And on Monday, activist investors filed proposals requesting that Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific provide paid sick leave, arguing that the companies must provide the benefit to stay competitive and keep workers safe.
“Focusing on the short term at the expense of workers poses potential risks to the company and the economy,” Kate Monahan, who leads shareholder advocacy at Trillium Asset Management, said in a statement. “As shareholders, we are asking management to reprioritize and take the longer-term view that safeguarding the health and safety of their workers will better position them for the future.”
Paid sick leave would represent a significant consolation prize for rail workers who are fed up with a system that they believe allows railroad executives to ignore their demands.
Railroads and unions engaged in tenuous negotiations for more than three years and remained at a standstill until a Biden-appointed board of experts released contract recommendations in July.
While workers in other essential industries took part in a wave of strikes this year, rail unions must overcome a series of roadblocks authorized by Congress that are explicitly designed to make a walkout difficult, if not impossible, taking away a key source of leverage. That system won’t change anytime soon.
“The federal government inserted itself into the dispute between the railroads and the railroad workers under the premise that it must protect the American economy. Yet, when the federal government makes that decision, its representatives have a moral responsibility to also protect the interests of the citizens that make this nation’s economy work — American railroaders,” Tony Cardwell, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division, said in a statement.