Most IBEW members in the union’s railroad branch have remained on the job since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, but the AFL-CIO says the U.S. is not doing nearly enough to keep the nation’s frontline transportation workers safe from this global pandemic.
“Millions of transportation workers have been bravely doing their part to see our country through this disaster,” AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Larry Willis wrote in a recent letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia. “They have driven the buses and trains that bring health care workers and patients alike to medical facilities. They have kept our supply chain running … operating and maintaining the freight rail network that connects communities from coast to coast.”
Members of the IBEW and the 32 other transportation worker unions in the TTD are risking their lives every day, Willis wrote, because lifesaving deployment of protective equipment and enforcement of thorough cleaning and disinfecting protocols have not been mandated at the national level.
Most of North America’s rail and transit networks have remained active, albeit at reduced service levels, to help ensure essential workers who depend on those systems have access to them. But unfortunately, an investigation by The Guardian published on April 20 found that nearly 100 U.S. transit workers have died from coronavirus complications — sadly, including a member of Jersey City, N.J., Local 864.
“We’ll continue to do our part during this crisis, but the federal government has to hold up its end of the bargain by helping to protect this country’s essential transportation workers,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson.
For weeks, the TTD has been demanding that the various agencies with transportation oversight, such as the Federal Transit Administration, issue specific guidance on protective equipment and cleaning standards
“If a public transportation agency or local government is not able to meet these guidelines and is therefore not able to provide service, the FTA must ensure that transit agencies provide continuity of pay to employees until such a time that the established requirements can be met,” a dozen union presidents, including Stephenson, wrote in a letter to Acting FTA Administrator K. Jane Williams.
The TTD called on the agencies to, at a minimum, use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance for transportation workers in close consultation with the various labor unions representing them. “Once developed, these enhanced safety measures must be made mandatory on transportation providers with adequate enforcement actions from your agencies,” the presidents said.
All of this needs to happen before any talk of “reopening the country” can take place, said incoming Railroad Department Director Al Russo. “If workers aren’t being adequately protected against the coronavirus now, how can they be expected to deal with increasing numbers of people, many of whom might be carrying the virus and not even know it?”
More than 140 members of Congress also have signed on to a bipartisan letter to FTA Administrator Williams calling for stronger measures to ensure frontline transportation workers are protected during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Meanwhile, as increasing numbers of U.S. freight railroad workers either are caring for family members infected with COVID-19 or are sick themselves, several rail companies have been petitioning the Federal Railroad Administration for permission to relax some of its crucial workplace safety regulations, prompting the TTD to ask the agency to consider other options first.
“The FRA has broad powers at its discretion to deal with national emergencies as it sees fit,” said Jim Meyer, an international representative in the Railroad Department. “Unfortunately, some railroads are using this as an opportunity to take some potentially risky and dangerous steps,” like delaying required safety inspections and tests.
“They’re claiming that staffing shortages resulting from COVID-19 are forcing their hand,” Meyer said. “But they’re forgetting that, in an emergency, the FRA also can allow companies to bring back furloughed employees to help fill any gaps and keep the trains running on time, as safely as ever.”
There are unfortunately a lot of furloughed railroad workers, thanks to efforts by a number of U.S. railroad companies over the past few years to reduce their workforces.
“If a carrier finds itself short on active employees, its first option must be found in the abundant supply of out-of-work railroaders, not in administrative intervention to be exempted from safety-critical regulations,” TTD President Willis wrote in an April 9 letter to FRA Administrator Ronald Batory, adding that the unions would be ready to ensure these workers receive any training they might need.
“We can’t allow the railroads to use the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to stretch workers to the breaking point and risk the safety of this country’s freight rail networks,” Russo said. “Workers in every mode of transportation that involves organized labor — from rail to buses to boats — are keeping goods and passengers moving during this crisis. “If we’re expected to stay healthy and whole while doing so, we need our oversight agencies in the federal government to do their part and help make it happen.”