Railroad workers across the country have been sparring with the railroads, union management, and Congress over a new union contract that Congress imposed on Dec. 2 to keep them from striking, after a majority of railroad union members voted it down.
Rank-and-file railroad workers say they’re upset about not being able to take unscheduled time off without incurring stiff penalties, unsafe work conditions, and quality-of-life pressures like fatigue and overwork because railroad owners are understaffing routes. (The big Class One railroads, including CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern in the Southeast, have cut 45,000 workers or 29% of jobs over the last six years, according to the Surface Transportation Board.)
Like those in other industries that Atlanta Civic Circle has reported on this year, including Delta flight attendants, Starbucks employees and Amazon workers, many railroad workers say that upheaval from the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened these problems.
Atlanta Civic Circle asked Angel Poventud, a CSX freight engineer, about the changes he’s seen in his workplace over the past few years. Poventud has worked on the railroad for 18 years as a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, one of the largest of the 12 railroad craft unions.
We talked to Poventud last week about the lack of paid sick days in the contract that Congress just forced through after two-and-a-half years of stalled negotiations, why it’s so hard for railroad unions to strike–and how that affects negotiations for the upcoming 2025 contract.
Now he shares how short-staffing and automation affect rank-and-file railroad workers and explains why turnover has spiked in a once-stable industry. He also tells us what happens if you take a sick day.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How has COVID-19 affected your job? Has it increased short-staffing?
We’ve definitely been working more in the last three years since the pandemic. When COVID-19 happened, there was this fear that there would be a slowdown in the economy. It really triggered quite a few people. There was kind of a timeout for a bunch of sites, and people worried they weren’t going to get paid for a while. So they started to leave.
But then pretty quickly–within a month or so–management realized they would need everyone, and told everyone to come back. It left such a bad taste in the mouth of some of my coworkers who’d been on the railroad at that point for 10 or 15 years. A lot of folks just left the industry and did not come back.
Some of that had to do with people having to take care of their families and not being able to go right back to railroading when they’d just been told, “Hey, we’re gonna let you stay out for a month or two or three–and we’ll let you know when we need you to come back.” Then, within a couple of weeks, management was telling people they had to come back immediately. So they’re like, “Yeah, well, I can’t do that.” And then they were just terminated.
Has turnover been high in the railroad industry historically?
No. People pretty much planned on being there for 30 years. The reason is that there are two different federal retirement programs, Social Security and Railroad Retirement Benefits. The railroad retirement system is generous, but if we leave the railroads before age 60 with 30 years of service, we end up seeing very little of the money that we pay into it. We pay 14% in railroad retirement taxes. [That’s higher than the social security tax rate of 12.4% –Ed.] We also pay 22% to 24% federal income tax at our current top taxable rate.
Somebody who retired from the railroad today [with 30 years of service] will bring home like $6,000 a month from Railroad Retirement.* That’s not including social security or 401(k) [income from any other jobs]. So once you’re in, you’re kind of a lifer. You don’t leave when you have a benefit like that, right?
*Editor’s note: The average monthly railroad retirement payment will be $3,344 in January, according to the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board. You need at least five years of railroad employment to vest in the railroad retirement pension system.
So people typically stayed for a long period of time, and now that’s changing?
Yes. There were six of us in my work group when I was hired 18 years ago, and five of us are still there. We just hired nine additional people in this push to bring up staffing back in spring, and we’ve already lost five of them. So we’re down to four people left out of that group.
Why has turnover increased so much?
A lot of it is because we had much better benefits when I got hired on. The railroad has really gotten away from a lot of the benefits that we had over the years–specifically, in the last three years.
We used to be making great money and we were pretty comfortable, so we were putting up with the job of railroading. And now things are different. My work group hasn’t gotten a raise in seven-and-a-half years. When the last contract happened [in 2015], my work group was left out of the raise. We’re on call and available 24 hours a day, six days a week–and they just left us out of the raise completely.
Editor’s note: The tentative 2020 contract agreement between the railroads and union management that Congress just enforced would give workers an immediate 14.1% raise and a 24% wage increase by 2024.
We’ve talked about short-staffing, high turnover and declining pay. Are there other ways you see the railroads trying to cut labor costs?
There’s also automation. We have two computer systems onboard a freight train. ”Trip optimizer” is sort of like autopilot. If you’re going from point A to point B, they want a computer driving the train, so that it drives efficiently and saves gas. Then there’s another system called PTC, which is “positive train control.” It’s watching us [engineers] to make sure we don’t speed and aren’t going to get into trouble by going past the red signal.
Eighteen years ago, there were no computer systems. It was just us flying blind, and they monitored our speed to see if we were speeding. With trip optimizer and PTC, I can get on a train, and basically let it drive.
The railroads say that you only need one person to run a freight train because of modern technology–instead of having both an engineer and a conductor on the engine.
Last week, the Federal Railway Administration held a hearing on a proposed two-person train rule, which is required by union contracts right now, but not by federal regulation. Why include that clause in the contract?
[Railroad ownership] wants to go to one-man crews. Over the years, they’ve been able to eliminate a lot of work rules that say there needs to be three or four people on an engine. With the new systems, they want you to go to one person on an engine. They’re doing a lot of modernization, trying to get to a place where they can go from two of us [which is the current system] on the engine to one.
If there’s one person and something breaks on the train, then you’ve got to get somebody out there to fix it in the middle of nowhere. And that can take hours, right?
You’ve told us that if you take an unscheduled day off for being sick, you lose an entire week of pay and you incur penalty points. How does the point discipline system work?
Let’s say you miss a call [to report for work], and there’s a train coming and they need you to run it. If you don’t answer the phone within 15 minutes, you get a 10-point deduction. Once you get up to 30 points, you then go to an investigation.
If you call in sick without a doctor’s note, that’s a five-point deduction. So if you’re out for three days, not feeling good, that’s 15 points. And if that happens again, then you’re looking at going into disciplinary action.
It used to be, if you had perfect attendance for a month, you would gain three points to knock away the point deficit that you had. They just changed that to a six-month window. So six months of perfect attendance and it’s still just three points that you gain.
I’m a single guy with no family. My life is easy. But for people with a family or spouse, it doesn’t feel good. You’re having to stay at home with your family [because of illness] and it’s somehow your fault. You’re accruing penalty points–and there’s really no way to undo that.
On the flip side, if you’ve got perfect attendance and you’re a good employee, your point accrual doesn’t add up in your favor. You don’t get extra time off for having good attendance, you just zero out. I know one of the [contract] proposals was asking for letting us accrue sick days. Like, don’t just give them to us, let us accrue them. That went nowhere.