DENVER — A nationwide rail strike was avoided on Friday after President Joe Biden signed legislation requiring rail workers to accept a tentative contract agreement with national freight railroads that The White House helped negotiate in September.
The legislation that was signed includes a $16,000 immediate payout, with wage and benefit increases up to $160,000, a 24% pay raise, $5,000 performance bonuses, maintaining access to health care plans and an additional day of paid personal leave. However, the contract does not include the seven days of paid sick leave unions wanted for rail workers.
The sick days passed in the House of Representatives, but failed in the Senate.
“This law prevents, under the Railway Labor Act, prevents railroad workers from striking or pursuing self help because of a possible detriment to the country," said Carl Smith, the Colorado State Legislative Director for the Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation Workers Union (SMART). “The Railway Labor Act is a law passed after World War I, when everything in the country moved by railroad, freight trains. There was no interstate highway system. Those times have changed, but we're still working under this law.”
Smith clarified that rail workers do have sick pay, but it's quite complicated. An employee would need to qualify for Railroad Unemployment and Sickness Benefits, which Smith said does not help with short-term sick days.
“To get unemployment and sickness benefits for railroad employees, you have to go through the Railroad Retirement Board. So you have to go to their website, you have to fill out a form," Smith said. “It's not calling your boss and saying 'I'm sick. Mark me down for a sick day.' Right?"
Smith said the union understands why Biden signed the tentative contract agreement Friday, but hopes he pushes for paid sick leave for all employees in the country.
Brad Baker has been a rail worker for 20 years, and spoke with Denver7 after a shift that lasted nearly 17 hours.
“Our main task is moving the freight of America," Baker said. “Everything that you see on the shelves, at one point, probably came on a train.”
Baker does not believe the majority of Americans fully realize the importance of what rail workers do. He feels as though the industry has been forgotten.
“Most people don't want to work this job," Baker said, and he can't blame them. "At the time, when a lot of us were hired, myself included, this job paid well enough that the pay outweighed what I gave up. The pay doesn't outweigh it now. And we don't want the pay to outweigh it. We want quality of life.”
Baker said many rail workers have to work while sick because of the current system.
“The number of people they get applying for the job is drastically down," said Baker. "There's a reason why people aren't working here. What's the reason? Well, they don't want this kind of life.”
More than the demanding schedule, Baker said the job is dangerous. He lost a friend and colleague in February.
“He was killed while working on the job here in Denver," Baker recalled, saying he felt "dread. One, I lost a friend, but two is for my other co-workers that were there, who saw what happened. That stuff they carry for the rest of their life... I don't believe that enough attention gets paid to railroaders when there is an incident. There's numerous railroad incidents every year, and they hardly ever get talked about.”
Baker said the way paid sick leave is handled makes it feel as though rail workers are being punished when sick.
“Most of the people that work here want to do a good job, too," said Baker. "And it's just too hard to do a good job when you keep getting beat down.”