Rail union urges rail industry to respond to coronavirus concerns

A photograph of a train. There is a road next to the train, and there are two hills behind the train.

With reports that the coronavirus is spreading throughout the U.S., the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) is pressing the rail industry to take action against a potential outbreak. 

Specifically, BLET wants the freight and passenger railroads to alter the sick leave policy as detailed in the rail union’s labor agreements with their rail employers, and it wants employers to provide stronger cleansers to sanitize workplaces.

In a March 5 letter to the heads of the National Railway Labor Conference (NRLC), which represents the Class I railroads, the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), BLET President Dennis R. Pierce suggested several actions that the rail industry can take to protect union members and prevent the coronavirus, also identified as COVID-19, from potentially spreading.

Those actions include suspending the attendance policies at the railroads and actively encouraging sick employees to stay home, which BLET says is in accordance with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Employees who show symptoms should stay home until they no longer have a fever for at least 24 hours, Pierce said.

“In order to effectuate this recommendation, all railroads should immediately suspend all non-collectively bargained attendance policies as they relate to all illness-related time away from work, (in place, pending or in dispute) at least until the COVID-19 outbreak is under control,” Pierce said. “This step will go far in providing separation between sick individuals and those who are healthy.”

The railroads should also provide hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes with higher levels of sanitizing compounds to ensure adequate workplace sanitation inside the locomotive cab and at computer workstations and crew rooms, Pierce said. BLET is recommending hand sanitizer that contains 60%-90% isopropyl alcohol; wipes containing at least 4% chlorhexidine gluconate; and 0.5% benzethonium chloride; and/or wipes containing 60-90% isopropyl alcohol.

BLET, along with the union SMART-Transportation Division, also asked the Federal Railroad Administration to take action on the coronavirus situation, according to a Mar. 6 letter.

The Association of American Railroads (AAR) told FreightWaves that its members are ensuring safe working conditions.

“Railroaders are the backbone of the freight rail industry and ensuring their safety is a top priority. The railroads are in regular communication with their employees about plans to safeguard wellness and maintain business operations,” AAR said. “The industry will continue to closely monitor the evolving coronavirus situation and CDC guidance on best practices to maintain a healthy workplace.”

APTA said the group and its members are communicating with local and federal officials on this evolving situation, in addition to sharing information and resources about the situation through webinars and on its website.

“APTA is working closely with public transportation providers to respond to this growing national concern about the COVID-19 virus and to safeguard transit employees and riders,” APTA said. “Systems nationwide are implementing their contagious virus response plans, increasing cleaning schedules, providing additional hand sanitizer and wipes to employees, and maintaining open lines of communication with employees and riders to protect their health and safety.”

ASLRRA also said it has information for its members on its website.

“Our member railroads are focused every day on the safety of their operations, including employee health.  Each railroad has its own response plan, and we have provided additional information for members on our website,” ASLRRA President Chuck Baker said.

Rails’ response to the coronavirus outbreak

How a coronavirus outbreak would affect North American rail operations is still uncertain. While rail executives of the Class I railroads anticipate some shifts in rail volumes brought about by lower port volumes at key ports, another uncertainty is the North American consumers’ response to an outbreak.

On an individual basis, some companies and executives are addressing the situation. Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) CEO Lance Fritz is co-chair of the Business Roundtable’s CEO COVID-19 Task Force. The task force will share information with members about the private sector’s response to the situation, and it will coordinate responses between the private sector and the U.S. government.

“Railroads are a critical global supply chain link for cross-border trade and ocean-bound cargo. Lance’s unique perspective will help the taskforce play a central role in minimizing coronavirus impacts on public health and the U.S. economy,” Union Pacific spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said.

Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson is also a co-chair, and the task force includes CEOs from Black & Decker, The Home Depot, NASDAQ, Pfizer, United Airlines and American Airlines, among others.

“Business Roundtable CEOs are closely monitoring the coronavirus situation to protect the health and safety of their employees and customers and to mitigate impacts to the U.S. economy,” said Business Roundtable CEO Joshua Bolten. “They remain confident in our country’s ability to address challenges raised by the outbreak and urge Americans to continue to act with prudence and preparation.”

Meanwhile, individual transit organizations also appear to be addressing concerns about an outbreak. Transit authorities throughout Massachusetts are disinfecting passenger trains and vehicles on a regular basis, according to MassLive.