Railroad workers could get the paid sick leave that was the focus of their strike threat — if the Biden administration intervenes with an executive order.
Workers were unable to secure their demands for paid sick leave through months of negotiations with the railroad companies or through congressional action.
But on Friday, 70 Democrats in Congress signed a letter asking President Joe Biden or a federal agency to pass an executive order giving railroad workers the seven days of sick leave they want each year.
The letter indicated that both the House and Senate supported the legislation, with some nominal support from Republicans in both houses and almost unanimous support from Democrats. But the law fell through because it didn’t get the 60 votes it needed in the Senate.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter from union allies in Congress.
But rail union officials said they have been in talks with the administration about some sort of executive action to give them the sick time they’ve been looking for and that they hope action may be forthcoming.
“I mean, the Biden administration has been helpful,” said Greg Hynes, national legislative director for the transportation division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail Transportation Union (SMART-TD), the largest railroad union, which represents about 28,000 leaders. “Of course they do. We’ll find out if they make it.”
The letter to Congress said executive action is needed from either Biden himself, the Department of Labor, or the Federal Railroad Administration because the lack of paid sick leave poses a safety risk to the general public as railroad workers try to get work done when they are sick .
“If a railway worker falls ill with COVID, the flu or any other illness and calls in sick, that worker will not only not be paid, they will be penalized and in some cases fired. We cannot allow that,” the letter said.
The main lobby group for the country’s railroads, the Association of American Railroads, said it believes the issue of sick days should be addressed in negotiations with unions.
“Following the conclusion of the latest round of negotiations, the industry looks forward to using the new agreements as a springboard for further discussions about the structure of our paid leave benefits, improving work-time predictability and addressing the broader interest in work-life balance,” said the AR.
“Railways remain committed to working with their employees to holistically address these priorities and find the right balance, whether as an industry or rail for rail with each union,” the AAR added.
The railroads insist workers can use personal or vacation days if they are too sick to report for work.
“If you wake up sick, nobody wants you on the railroad and management doesn’t want workers to come to work when they’re sick,” Ian Jefferies, CEO of AAR, said in an interview with CNN last month.
Unions said members have historically been able to use their bank of paid time off more easily when they were sick, but deep downsizing in recent years has left railways so understaffed that it’s rare for workers in these cases, get permission when they wake up and don’t feel well. If they do so, they risk not only losing wages but also disciplinary action. And the AAR’s own statement on sick pay availability states that workers can take sick leave without penalty so long as they “maintain reasonable overall availability.”
The Biden administration has asked Congress to vote to block a union strike that could have started last Friday, saying a walkout would be too severe a blow to the country’s economy.
The unions argued that they needed the right to strike to achieve things they wanted at the bargaining table, such as sick days.
Despite the disappointment, most union leaders refrained from criticizing Biden for imposing unpopular contracts on his members that did not include sick days.
When asked if the reason most union leaders did not criticize Biden’s decision was because they hope he will be willing to pass an executive order to give them the controversial sick days, Hynes replied: “I think You answer your own question. ”
Rail unions are planning nationwide rallies in support of rail workers. The lack of sick days will be a big issue at the rallies.
Among the speakers at the Washington DC rally will be Senator Bernie Sanders, the lead author of the congressional briefing. That letter notes that President Barack Obama issued such a rule for government contractors in 2015, but it does not apply to the unionized railroad workers.
“More than 115,000 railroad workers across this country look to you to provide them with the dignity at work they deserve and to keep our rail system safe for its workers and for the millions of Americans who cross railroad tracks every day,” says the letter to Congress. “Through executive branch orders, government regulations and any other relevant authority, we ask that you take swift and decisive action to guarantee these workers paid sick leave.”