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Railroad unions fighting new BNSF railroad attendance rules

February 1, 2022 GMT
FILE - A BNSF railroad train hauling carloads of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming is seen east of Hardin, Mont., on July 15, 2020. BNSF railroad's two biggest unions that represent 17,000 workers won't be able to go on strike over a new attendance policy they say would penalize employees for missing work for any reason, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)
FILE - A BNSF railroad train hauling carloads of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming is seen east of Hardin, Mont., on July 15, 2020. BNSF railroad's two biggest unions that represent 17,000 workers won't be able to go on strike over a new attendance policy they say would penalize employees for missing work for any reason, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)
FILE - A BNSF railroad train hauling carloads of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming is seen east of Hardin, Mont., on July 15, 2020. BNSF railroad's two biggest unions that represent 17,000 workers won't be able to go on strike over a new attendance policy they say would penalize employees for missing work for any reason, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)
FILE - A BNSF railroad train hauling carloads of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming is seen east of Hardin, Mont., on July 15, 2020. BNSF railroad's two biggest unions that represent 17,000 workers won't be able to go on strike over a new attendance policy they say would penalize employees for missing work for any reason, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)
FILE - A BNSF railroad train hauling carloads of coal from the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming is seen east of Hardin, Mont., on July 15, 2020. BNSF railroad's two biggest unions that represent 17,000 workers won't be able to go on strike over a new attendance policy they say would penalize employees for missing work for any reason, a federal judge ruled Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The two biggest unions at BNSF railroad are raising concerns about a new attendance policy that went into effect Tuesday, saying it penalizes employees for missing work for any reason and encourages sick employees to report for duty.

The unions that represent 17,000 BNSF workers appealed to the secretaries of Transportation and Labor this week to intervene in the dispute after a federal judge blocked their ability to strike over the issue last week.

Administration officials said Tuesday they were monitoring the dispute but didn’t promise any immediate action to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the Transportation Division of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation unions.

The unions have also asked a judge to put the new rules on hold while the lawsuit over them progresses, but the policy was allowed to take effect.

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A Transportation Department spokesperson said the disagreement between BNSF and its unions is governed by the Railway Labor Act, which “has long ensured prompt and orderly settlement of disputes between companies and unions” without disrupting commerce. The judge cited that law in deciding the unions weren’t allowed to strike because this would likely be considered a minor issue that must be resolved through arbitration or negotiation.

BNSF said Tuesday it has tweaked its new attendance rules in response to employee concerns but it declined to go into detail about what changes it made. Union officials say those changes haven’t gone far enough and the policy could prompt additional resignations that will exacerbate the ongoing supply-chain problems.

The railroad has said the new policy is needed to ensure it has the workers it needs available to operate its trains, and BNSF says the new system gives employees a clearer idea of where they stand than the old system did.

The unions are worried about illnesses during the pandemic and they say BNSF’s new attendance policy would penalize union officials for taking time off to help represent their fellow employees at disciplinary hearings and would penalize workers for taking family leave time that is protected by federal law.

BNSF’s policy “will effectively force COVID-19 positive engineers who fear for their jobs to eschew tests or eschew staying home from work to stop the spread,” the BLET union said in court documents.

Also, the unions said the policy would unfairly reduce the number of days workers can be off because of fatigue or other concerns from the current 84 days a year to 22 days under the new policy. The unions said railroad workers are essentially on call 24 hours a day and might be called in to work after only a few hours of rest because of unpredictable train schedules.

BNSF, which is based in Fort Worth, Texas, has said the new attendance rules should still allow employees to take time off for vacations and deal with obligations outside of work.

BNSF is one of the nation’s largest railroads, and it operates 32,500 miles (52,300 kilometers) of track in 28 western states.