A leading railroad workers' union this week struck a landmark deal with industry giant Norfolk Southern to provide more than 3,300 employees up to seven days of paid sick leave each year.
"This is a big day for the BLET," declared Scott Bunten, a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen general chairman. "Our members are the heart of the railroad, and this agreement is a major win in our tireless efforts to improve the quality of their experience on and off the job."
Similarly describing the union's engineers as "the hardest-working folks on the railroad," fellow BLET chairman Jerry Sturdivant said the agreement "recognizes the critical contributions our members make to keep the railroad and the American economy running."
Under the deal, Norfolk Southern engineers will get five paid sick days annually, plus they will be able to use up to two additional days of existing paid time off as sick leave. The new policy will take effect once union members ratify an accompanying quality-of-life agreement, which they are expected to vote on within the next month.
"We are proud to be the first to have reached a paid sick leave agreement for our dedicated BLET membership," said Dewayne Dehart, another union general chairman. "This trailblazing new deal ensures that engineers finally have access to the time they need and deserve to manage their personal well-being."
Although Norfolk Southern president and CEO Alan Shaw refused to commit to seven paid sick days for all employees while testifying before Congress in March, this week he also highlighted the historic nature of the new agreement, saying it "continues our industry-leading effort to enhance quality of life as we become the first railroad to reach an engineer sick leave deal."
According to a joint statement from the company and union, "With this agreement, almost all Norfolk Southern craft employees—approximately 98%—have entered into paid sick leave deals."
As The Associated Pressreported:
This deal follows the model established by the conductors union in its first sick-time deals with Norfolk Southern and CSX. Those train crew workers are getting better deals, with five days of sick time, than the other smaller rail unions that received four days of sick time. But train crews work much more unpredictable and demanding schedules than other rail workers.
The railroads have also agreed to pay workers for any unused sick time at the end of the year.
"The BLET is currently working to secure similar sick leave agreements with the other Class 1 railroads," said Eddie Hall, the union's national president, "and I hope this settlement will help bring those negotiations to a positive conclusion."
Railroad employees and their unions have generated national discussions about paid leave over the past year. In December, President Joe Biden signed related legislation—which blocked a looming strike and forced through a White House-brokered agreement that did not include any paid sick leave—while ignoring calls for an executive order guaranteeing rail workers sick days.
Since then, Norfolk Southern has become a household name, and federal lawmakers have proposed rail safety reforms, in the wake of a company train that carried hazardous materials derailing in East Palestine, Ohio—near the Pennsylvania border—in February.
The new deal comes as paid sick leave advocates on Capitol Hill renew their push for national legislation. Joined by leaders from nursing and railway unions on Wednesday, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) along with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced the Healthy Families Act (HFA) and the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act.
Mike Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, said that "the BRS would like to thank those members of Congress who support paid sick leave. Rail workers were deemed essential during the pandemic. They came to work sick because they didn't want to miss a day's pay, or worse be disciplined for their absence."
"This legislation is important to rail workers," Baldwin added of the HFA. "It is an essential need, and it isn't just a frivolous want."