Photo by Eric Harrold/Fall River County Herald-Star
A BNSF train stages at the Edgemont depot. The company’s new attendance policy went into effect on February 1st and has been a topic of negotiation between union representatives and company executives.
By Eric Harrold
EDGEMONT – BNSF employees in Edgemont and elsewhere appear frustrated by the company’s new attendance policy called Hi-Viz, which was implemented on February 1, according to multiple sources including the company itself.
Hi-Viz is a point-based penalty system in which points are deducted in varying amounts depending on whether the absence occurs on a weekday or the weekend, with higher penalties for weekends and holidays. The implementation of the new attendance policy follows a ruling by Federal District Court Judge Mark Pittman back on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, that prevented members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation unions from striking over the new policy. In his ruling, Pittman cited significant damage to the economy, claiming that a strike would “exacerbate our current supply-chain crisis – harming the public at large, not just BNSF” as the basis for his decision.
According to information gleaned from a company review post on Indeed.com, by someone claiming to be employed with the railroad in Edgemont, the way the system works is fairly straightforward. Employees governed by the system start out with 30 points. An employee will receive a deduction of two points if an absence occurs on a regular weekday. Taking time off on Friday or Saturday results in a deduction of 4 points, and a Sunday absence results in a 3-point deduction. Holiday absences, because they are considered ‘high impact’ days, will result in a 7-point deduction. A family member of a local railroad employee asked about the details of the attendance policy insisted that those shared in the referenced online post were accurate.
Once an employee uses up their 30 points and hits “0”, a 10-day suspension is leveraged. After the end of the suspension, the employee restarts with 15 points. If the employee once again uses all their points and falls to zero, this second violation triggers a 20-day suspension. A third violation can result in termination.
The Indeed.com post claims that BNSF employees with more than 20 years with the company have quit their job over the new policy. It laments that unions hold no power, yet an employee is required to be a member and pay $135 per month in union dues. The post makes the claim that Union workers have been working without a contract for three years, meaning during that time, members have received no cost-of-living increase.
As of Thursday, Feb. 10, BNSF Railway on its company website has posted what is titled “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Response.” It states, “In response, we have been following the guidance and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local public health agencies”, but makes no mention of whether employees who test positive will be allotted the recommended period for quarantine in accordance with CDC guidelines or whether a negative test will be required before an employee can return to work.
“Here you are with multiple family responsibilities, and parents should have the time to where they don’t have to pick and choose or prioritize among urgent family issues,” shared the spouse of an Edgemont worker under the condition of anonymity. “It creates stress, worsens depression, and could even lead to suicide.” The spouse talked about how many railroad workers come from families with consecutive generations that have been career employees for railroad companies. In a day and age in which railroad companies are downsizing their workforce, leaving fewer employees to bear the burden of doing more in the face of a pandemic, it leaves little incentive for future generations to carry on the family tradition of going to work for the railroad. According to this person, the railroad industry is causing long-term employees with a strong work ethic to be replaced by newer generations of employees that aren’t as committed to making it a career, especially when confronted with being called into work for what could turn into a 60-hour tour of duty. These employees, the spouse argues, will only work temporarily for the railroad and leave for other jobs that aren’t as lucrative in terms of pay and benefits, but are also less demanding of them in terms of their availability.
The new attendance policy is viewed as the latest change made in an attempt to maintain the same transportation volume with fewer resources, meaning that those who remain employed have to be willing to make themselves available for extended tours of duty. The ongoing trend of downsizing the workforce has led to consideration by railroad companies to have only an engineer on board, which means that should a derailment or accident occur, the emergency response to such events will be hampered because no conductor is on board to inform emergency responders as to the nature of any chemicals or potentially hazardous materials being transported. Experienced railroad employees and their families are concerned that reduced manpower will put them and folks residing near the scene of accidents at greater risk when those events occur. This has led to an organized effort by railroad workers to keep both an engineer and a conductor on all trains, a movement that has been labeled ‘fight for two-person crews’. Information on the movement can be obtained by visiting fightfortwopersoncrews.com.
When contacted for a response on the new attendance policy and related matters, BNSF shared a statement that was initially issued a few weeks ago following the Texas judge’s ruling that prevented BNSF Union employees from going on strike:
“We are pleased that the ruling allows us to move forward working together with our employees to do what we do best in providing service that is essential to our customers and the American economy. BNSF’s new system will provide more predictability for our train crews while also providing more reliable crew availability, which is essential to meeting our customers’ expectations and the demands posed by an increasingly competitive global supply chain. Our program is designed to provide ample time for obligations outside of work, including planned vacations, personal leave days and unplanned absences while ensuring that we have sufficient employees available to work. BNSF team members drive our success and we couldn’t deliver the nation’s goods without them. We understand that change can be an adjustment, but working together with our employees, we believe we can adapt to meet today’s competitive freight environment.”
Concerning the attendance policy that is now in place, the BNSF media response team had this to say:
“The new attendance policy went into on Feb 1. We did give several weeks’ notice before implementing Hi-Viz and we’ve spent that time listening to employees. Based on those conversations, BNSF has made modifications to the program and we’ll continue to listen as it rolls out. The program is designed is to provide ample time for obligations outside of work including planned vacations and personal leave days.”
Notably, the response issued by the company failed to address other matters of inquiry including whether employees testing positive for COVID-19 were being given time in accordance with CDC guidelines to isolate or until a negative test was produced, or whether days missed due to absences related to COVID-19 were deducted in accordance with the new point-based attendance policy.