Railroaders to protest new work scheduling system outside Berkshire Hathaway meeting

Union official calls it ‘the worst and most egregious’ plan ever

By: - April 28, 2022 2:18 pm
Railroad yard

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway yard in Lincoln. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

OMAHA — Some angry railroaders, upset with a new work scheduling system at the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, will be protesting outside Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting Saturday at the CHI Health Center arena.

Locomotive engineers say the new attendance policy, called “Hi Viz,” requires them to be on call 90% of the time and has led to a workforce that is understaffed, overworked and fatigued. They say the policy has forced some to quit.

Dennis Pierce, the national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, called Hi Viz “the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier” in a recent article in Vice, a Canadian-American magazine known for provocative stories.

Union Pacific has similar system

Hi Viz is similar to an attendance policy recently implemented by Omaha-based Union Pacific.

BNSF Railway is one of the prized companies in the Berkshire Hathaway portfolio and reported record earnings of $6 billion in 2021.

A spokesman for the BNSF said the goal of Hi Viz, which was implemented in February, is to “improve the consistency of crews being available for their shifts to run trains” which translates into more consistent service.

When we overburden rail workers, it only furthers turnover, worsens service and presents serious safety issues.

– U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg

It also gives crews more “predictability and transparency” when they are called in for work, said spokesman Ben Wilemon.

“We understand that change is hard, but as with every other railroad and service business, delivering for our customers requires employees to be available to work their assigned shifts,” Wilemon said.

The dispute comes as rail shippers are experiencing increased delays and railroads are operating with 20% fewer workers than before the COVID-19 pandemic, federal officials have said.

Rail union billboard
One of the billboards sponsored by a union representing workers at BNSF Railways. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

The 33,000-member railroad union says it is taking its message “to the streets” after being unable to bargain for better wages and working conditions.

 The union recently launched a series of digital and print advertisements, including some in the Omaha World-Herald, saying that BNSF Railway is “Off the Rails” and that some of the record profits should be invested in crews that staff increasingly long trains and trains that carry hazardous materials.

‘Off the rails’

The ads attack Hi-Viz as prohibiting engineers and other rail workers from scheduling days off without penalty, even at times “for surgery or jury duty.”

Wilemon, the BNSF Railway spokesman, said there has been no change in how much time off an employee receives and that, on average, more than 50% of train crew employees work less than 40 hours a week.

He added that personal leave days were increased by 25% this year and maintained that the BNSF has more train crews than a year ago and that it has 300 workers in training.

A recent Washington Post story reported the union was “preparing to petition President Biden to intervene” by appointing officials to mediate a settlement with the railroad or rescinding the prohibition on strikes by train workers.

Pete Buttigieg
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg testifies before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The U.S. Surface Transportation Board took testimony earlier this week from the nation’s largest railroads, as well as U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Pete Buttigieg and other federal officials, on “inconsistent and unreliable” service by the rail freight industry, particularly concerning agricultural and energy  goods.

Buttigieg, the first Transportation Secretary to address the Surface Transportation Board in over 20 years, said the railroad workforce is 20% less than it was prior to the pandemic and turnover is “far above” normal levels, yet railroaders showed up “every day” during the pandemic.

Pilot project on reducing wasted time

Congestion and delays in rail shipments have increased, hurting farmers, Buttigieg said.

He said the DOT has already launched a pilot project to improve data sharing to reduce wasted time in goods moving from ports to trains and to consumers. He said Biden’s infrastructure law includes incentives to bolster the workforce.

 The Surface Transportation Board, he said, should require railroads to include impacts on workers in the “improvement plans” that rail companies will submit.

“When we overburden rail workers, it only furthers turnover, worsens service and presents serious safety issues,” Buttigieg said. 

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska Legislature and Nebraska state government for decades. He started his career reporting for the Omaha Sun and was named editor of the Papillion Times in 1982. He later worked as a sports enterprise reporter at the Lincoln Journal-Star. He joined the Omaha World-Herald in 1990, working as a legislative reporter, then roving state reporter and finally Lincoln bureau chief. Paul has won awards from organizations including Great Plains Journalism, the Associated Press and Suburban Newspapers of America. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation and secretary of the Nebraska Hop Growers.

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