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U.S. lawmakers urge Biden to guarantee rail workers“ sick leave


U.S. President Joe Biden speaks prior to signing railroad legislation into law, providing a resoluton to avert a nationwide rail shutdown, during a signing ceremony in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., December 2, 2022. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

More than 70 lawmakers including Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Friday urged President Joe Biden to take executive action to guarantee rail workers paid sick days.

On Dec. 2, Biden signed legislation to block a national U.S. railroad strike that could have devastated the American economy after some unions voted against the deal over a lack of paid sick leave. The White House did not immediately comment on the lawmakers’ letter, signed by 72 Democratic lawmakers and Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

Senate Banking Committee chair Sherrod Brown, Senate Finance chair Ron Wyden and Representative Donald Payne who chairs a railroad subcommittee also signed the letter that noted that then President Barack Obama signed a 2015 executive order establishing paid sick leave for federal contractors.

But Obama’s order ultimately did not cover rail carriers “despite the fact that the Federal Government has hundreds of contracts with freight rail carriers. You can and you must expand this executive order,” the lawmakers told Biden.

Railroads slashed labor and other costs to bolster profits in recent years, and have been fiercely against adding paid sick time that would require them to hire more staff.

Railroad workers have no paid short-term sick days after unions representing 115,000 workers asked for 15 days and railroads settled on one personal day.

The contract includes a 24% compounded pay increase over five years and five annual $1,000 lump-sum payments.

“That fight isn’t over,” Biden said of the push for sick leave.

The letter said the Labor Department can set mandatory occupational safety and health standards for businesses affecting interstate commerce that could cover paid sick time, while the Transportation Department must promote safe railroad operations.

“Guaranteeing that workers are not operating trains or inspecting rail signals while sick or tired would fundamentally improve the safety of our national rail operations,” the letter said.

A rail strike could have frozen almost 30% of U.S. cargo shipments by weight, stoked already surging inflation, cost the American economy as much as $2 billion a day and stranded millions of rail passengers.

Congress invoked its sweeping powers to block strikes involving transportation – authority it does not have in other labor disputes.

The contracts cover workers at carriers including Union Pacific (UNP.N), Berkshire Hathaway Inc’s BNSF, CSX (CSX.O), Norfolk Southern Corp (NSC.N) and Kansas City Southern. A railroad trade group did not immediately comment on the letter.

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