Press Release Health and Social Programs Unions United States Workers

Rail Industry Labor Dispute Shows Need for Federal Paid Sick Leave Guarantee

December 15, 2022

Contact: Dan Beeton, 202-239-1460Mail_Outline

Washington, DC — US rail workers’ demands for paid sick leave underscore the need for federal legislation guaranteeing such leave, Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) researchers write today. As previous CEPR research has shown, the US is the only wealthy country to not guarantee paid sick leave. Many US rail workers, even though they are relatively well-paid and are highly unionized, do not have any sick leave, as the industry has increasingly moved to a “precision scheduled railroading” (PSR) model that requires workers to essentially be on call at all hours. Paid sick leave would require the industry to maintain slack in the workforce, which runs counter to the PSR model.

“This moment shows how crucial it is to have guaranteed paid sick leave,” CEPR Research Associate Hayley Brown said. “Were rail workers — and all US workers — assured paid sick time off under the law, this labor dispute, which has brought a crucial industry to the brink of stoppage, would not have happened.”

Brown and her coauthors Julia Tache and Dylan Gyauch-Lewis note that states that have implemented paid sick leave guarantees, such as Connecticut and New York, have experienced “minimal impact on costs or business operations” and often improved worker morale and a reduced spread of viral illnesses.

The US rail industry, on the other hand, has in recent years moved to a PSR business model that depends on a reduced workforce with irregular and longer schedules. Under this model, rail workers are “on call at virtually all hours, including when taking leave,” the CEPR researchers write.

“The cracks in PSR have become increasingly visible during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brown, Tache, and Gyauch-Lewis write. “Aggressive cost-cutting, layoffs, and erratic scheduling have resulted in worker shortages. Railroads have been cited frequently for safety violations and for retaliating against whistleblowers,” while workers have had difficulty in getting medical care, have often foregone preventative care and treatment, and have increasingly been pressured to go to work sick. Meanwhile, “railroad management has pocketed record profits at the expense of their employees’ health,” including “$196 billion in stock buybacks and dividends.”

Rail employees likely would have won paid sick leave had Congress not intervened to the benefit of rail company owners and managers. By passing legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave to all US workers, such as the Healthy Families Act, Congress could prevent labor disputes over a basic human need — access to medical care — in the future.

“Congress and the Biden administration let rail workers down when they effectively sided with the rail industry bosses and forced through a raw deal that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave,” Tache said. “Congress and the administration could go a long way to rectifying this wrong by guaranteeing sick leave at the federal level.”


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