Rail unions seek federal help in ensuring coronavirus response

A composite image. On the left is a photograph of a rail employee standing next to a freight train. On the right is the word coronavirus with an image of the virus underneath the word.

Two railroad labor unions are pressing the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) to issue emergency orders pushing the freight and passenger railroads to adopt protective measures more speedily amid the growing coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

The requests come amid reports in social media that some Class I railroads have been slow to comply or insufficient in their response to FRA’s March 14 declaration that the U.S. is in an emergency situation and so emergency relief provisions should apply to the railroads. Some workers have said they don’t have enough cleaning supplies available for the number of employees who need those supplies, or efforts to adequately clean and sanitize equipment in areas such as inside the locomotive cab have been lax.

“The employees we represent are essential to the health, safety, and security of the nation. Therefore, it is necessary that the railroads take immediate and appropriate precautions to mitigate against the spread of the virus amongst their workforces, to minimize the exposure of their employees to the virus during the performance of their duties, and that Class I railroads maintain sufficient staffing levels to compensate for reduced headcounts caused by sick employees and family members, as well as to seamlessly handle predicted increases in volume once the virus begins to subside,” according to a petition to FRA signed by Jeremy R. Ferguson, president of the Transportation Division of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) association, and Dennis R. Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET).

The unions contend that many rail carriers have been slow or neglectful about adopting measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 or the coronavirus in the areas of locomotive sanitation, sanitation of employees’ common areas, employee temperature monitoring and sanitation of crew transportation vehicles. They also say FRA has not issued any action plans to help the railroads meet CDC recommendations. The unions had sent a letter to FRA earlier this month asking the agency to develop an action plan for the freight railroads that addresses the outbreak.

The unions said they are also seeking to modify how an employee documents hours-of-service reports to accommodate longer wait times for meals, and they want procedures addressing how the railroads handle employees who develop coronavirus symptoms to ensure they follow CDC guidelines. The unions also want 25% of furloughed rail personnel to be recalled to service immediately to deal with anticipated shortages and staffing needs, per President Donald Trump’s invocation of the Defense Production Act.

FRA said it has received the unions’ petitions and it is formulating a response.

Separately, the Association of American Railroads (AAR), which represents the Class I railroads and Amtrak, said Friday that the railroads are responding to the outbreak, with the companies’ chief medical officers working to update procedures as needs arise. In addition to efforts to encourage employees to stay home if they’re sick and practice social distancing, the industry has been hosting daily calls among companies’ cross-functional teams to share data and best practices.

“As COVID-19 continues to evolve, North America’s freight railroads are safeguarding the health and safety of their dedicated rail workforce while maintaining the flow of goods necessary to preserve public health and sustain families. As the situation remains fluid, railroads will continue to monitor the situation closely and modify their response accordingly,” AAR said.

Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) and Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) have outlined in notifications to customers some of the measures both railroads are taking to address the outbreak. These measures come amid reports that some employees have contracted the novel coronavirus.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. has also reported that Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP) grappled initially with how to handle employees who have traveled, while NBC Nebraska has said a second Union Pacific employee has contracted COVID-19. That employee worked with one who had contracted the virus after going on a cruise, and the employee was in self-quarantine already because of his exposure to his colleague.