Saturday, September 17, 2022

Greedy Immoral Treasonous Oligarchs Abusing American Workers

slate  |  If you were planning to spend Thursday stocking up on toilet paper in advance of a seemingly imminent freight-railroad strike or lockout, you woke up to welcome news. President Joe Biden has announced a tentative agreement to avert the disruption and the body blow it would have caused the economy and our supply chains. The deal isn’t final—workers will soon vote on it—but, nonetheless, it’s a relief following a week of headlines warning about the potential of $2 billion a day in economic loss, including disruptions to passenger trains, grain shipments, carmakers, and refiners.

What was missing from these headlines? The actual reason for the conflict between railroad workers and their employers. The potential strike or lockout was not because of any dispute over pay, but because of inhumane attendance policies that currently mean railroad engineers and conductors are either working or “on call” 90 percent of the time. When they’re on call, they can be summoned to work on two hours’ notice or less, and then may be away from home for days at a time. Workers report that they have no sick days, paid or unpaid. If they have to take time off unexpectedly, even because of illness, they lose points in a convoluted, points-based attendance system. That means workers are at risk of being disciplined or fired for getting sick, going to a doctor’s appointment or a family funeral, or for any other absence that can’t be planned far in advance.

As railroad worker Hugh Sawyer told the American Prospect, this meant that on his 65th birthday this year, he got home at 7:30 in the morning after working 12 hours the day before, slept for five hours, and then spent the day refreshing his computer to see if he was being called back to work. Another worker, describing the onerous requirements for scheduling off-time in advance, wrote on Facebook, “How do you schedule a funeral in October if it’s only February?” He also noted that he gets 30 days fully off for the entire year, no weekends. And the wife of an engineer told Vice, “They go to work sick, they miss funerals of loved ones, they miss final goodbyes to parents on hospice, they miss holidays, birthdays, all of it.”

As the unions put it in a statement on Sunday, “these policies are destroying the lives of our members.” The unions initially pushed for paid sick leave, but later sought only unpaid sick leave. Yes, really: They’ve had to fight in order not to be punished for taking unexpected, urgently needed unpaid sick leave. It appears that the tentative agreement between the parties would address these attendance and leave policies by creating “voluntary assigned days off,” granting one additional paid day off, allowing workers to attend medical appointments without penalty, and creating exemptions from attendance policies for hospitalizations and surgeries.

It should not be controversial to say it, but: People should have sick leave so they do not have to come to work when they get sick. They should be able to take leave to attend doctors’ appointments or deal with family emergencies without risking their jobs. Workers should also have regular time off, not be on call almost every day of their lives. This strike or lockout was threatened because of the railroad companies’ refusal, right up until the last minute, to accept these basic human needs, and their willingness to bring an already weary country to the brink of yet another economic disaster, all in the name of ever more profits.

The United States, unlike many countries, does not have a national law guaranteeing sick leave; if we did, the railroads’ attendance systems would be clearly illegal. The kind of point-based attendance systems that railroads employ can still be considered unlawful retaliation if workers lose points for taking leave that is legally protected, such as for absences guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, or state or local sick-leave laws. Apart from questions of legality, it is grossly irresponsible to punish people for unexpected illnesses ever, and especially during a pandemic.

 

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