For the first time in 30 years, Congress intervened in a railroad labor dispute last week by overwhelmingly passing a bipartisan bill that imposes a tentative deal between freight railroad companies and their unions that President Biden brokered in September. While 8 out of 12 rail unions voted to ratify that contract, four of them — which represent just over 50 percent of rail workers — voted against it and threatened to strike. That’s ultimately why Congress got involved.
Biden signed the legislation on Friday. By imposing the labor agreement, federal lawmakers successfully averted a rail strike, which could have upended the US economy this winter. The deal also includes significant improvements in working conditions for the 115,000 rail workers it covers, from a 24 percent pay increase — the first raise for union workers since 2019, bringing total average annual pay and benefits to $160,000 a year — to more flexible time off policies.
But there is one area where the agreement Biden hammered out and the bill Congress passed fall far too short. Right now, rail workers aren’t entitled to any sick days, whether paid or not, and strict point-based attendance policies actually penalize people for calling out because of an illness. The lack of sick days leads workers to face suspensions for not reporting to work when they had a legitimate excuse not to, and, in some cases, job termination.
In one particularly egregious case, a 51-year-old locomotive engineer felt compelled to delay his doctor’s visit because of the attendance policy when he was unexpectedly called into work. A few weeks later, he died from a heart attack while he was on a freight train. That tragedy is part of what prompted unions to push so vigorously for a better sick-leave policy. The deal added one “personal day,” well short of what unions wanted.
When it comes to sick leave for rail workers, the status quo is simply untenable. While rail companies say that workers can use paid vacation days when they get sick, the reality is that those are required to be scheduled in advance, and no one makes plans to get sick.
Congress could have added the sick days unions wanted to the deal, but a proposal to do so was blocked by Republican senators. But that shouldn’t be the last word. As Biden himself said, “I’ve made it very clear: I’m going to fight for paid leave, not only for rail workers but for all Americans.” So far, he hasn’t explained exactly how he would do that. But one way he ought to explore is an executive order.
There is precedent. On Labor Day in 2015, former president Barack Obama signed an executive order that required all federal contractors to provide their employees with up to seven days of paid sick leave. But that order exempted rail companies. Biden could simply extend that policy to apply more broadly so that it includes rail workers as well, many of whom work for companies that are federal contractors because they ship things like US mail or equipment for the Department of Defense. Doing so would not only benefit thousands of workers, but it would set a standard for the rest of the industry.
It’s unconscionable that after the last few years — in which the COVID pandemic forced the entire world to learn about the importance of sensible public health policies — American lawmakers and corporate leaders are still reluctant to grant workers any paid sick leave. And while Biden can certainly celebrate the fact that his leadership helped avert a potentially catastrophic rail strike, he should stick to his word and push for paid sick leave to become a part of all workplaces.
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