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Class I railroads grapple with COVID-19 as unions seek safety assurances

With coronavirus cases rising sharply in the U.S. and Canada in recent weeks, the Class I railroads have also been grappling with managing increased COVID-19 exposure on their networks.

Meanwhile, some rail union members contend that the railroads have been inconsistent with how safety precautions have been applied throughout the rail network (see below).

A CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) executive recently said his company has been seeing a lot of cases within the U.S. rail network, particularly in the Midwest.

Indeed, in the past seven days, coronavirus cases have shot up in the Upper Midwest, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For instance, the CDC determined that there have been 9,656 cases per 100,000 residents in North Dakota over the past seven days. In contrast, New York City, an early COVID-19 hotbed, has seen about 3,598 cases per 100,000 residents.

“We’ve seen some hot spots of employees that are having to go out because they’ve got the disease. And so we’re dealing with it,” said Mark Wallace, CSX executive vice president of sales and marketing, at the Baird investor conference on Nov. 12.

Wallace continued, “The most important thing that we’ve learned, and my sales and marketing team has done a remarkable job and a great job of, is really communicating with customers and keeping everybody abreast of what’s going on, the challenges that we’ve experienced, what we’re doing, the action plans that we’re putting in place to monitor and to recover and to get their service back up and going. So we’re all learning from this.”

CSX told FreightWaves it has implemented safety protocols that align with CDC guidelines. But with case numbers climbing in many states and localities, CSX “has taken swift action to enhance vigilance and to best ensure we keep our employees safe and protect our operations,” the railroad said.

Those safeguards include “rigorous” sanitation practices and a mandatory face-covering requirement whenever employees are in common areas or within 6 feet of another person. Other safeguards include restricting visitor access and isolating employees who have tested positive for the coronavirus or who have been in contact with a confirmed case.

“We maintain ongoing communication with our customers to keep them informed and to be able to quickly address any service- or pandemic-related issues that may impact changes to their operations. In addition to the measures aimed at protecting employee health and safety, CSX has taken steps to ensure we are adequately staffed throughout the pandemic,” CSX said.

Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) has adopted safety protocols similar to CSX, such as required facial coverings in public work areas, social distancing and increased access to hand sanitizer. The railroad also said employees are using disinfecting wipes to frequently wipe down work surfaces. Locomotive cabs have also been supplied with disinfectant spray and cloths so that train crews can wipe down throttles, arm rests and other surfaces, Union Pacific (UP) said.

UP said its rail network is currently fluid and service hasn’t been impacted as a result of COVID-19.

“We continue to ask employees to stay home if they experience symptoms consistent with COVID-19,” UP said. “Union Pacific’s health and medical team works with employees diagnosed with the virus, conducts contact tracing to identify employees who may have been exposed and guides them during the quarantine process. We also have procedures in place to decontaminate work areas when someone tests positive.”

BNSF (NYSE: BRK) told FreightWaves that its two main objectives throughout the pandemic have been to protect the health of employees and to keep trains running. The railroad said it has been grounding operational decisions in CDC guidance and making adjustments as needed.

“Some of the actions we have taken over time ensure that we are better prepared and able to move quickly when conditions change. As we look to the future, the lessons of resilience and perseverance we learned will stay with us,” BNSF said. “As the economy has started to recover and volumes return, we will remain focused on delivering strong service performance across our network so we are well positioned to handle our customers’ freight. We have, and continue to, work with customers to identify and closely monitor critical shipments and take action to ensure that they make it to their destination on time.”

Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU) echoed those sentiments, saying its two primary objectives are to protect the health and well-being of employees and ensure the continuity of essential business operations.

The railroad said it has seen the number of COVID-19 cases rise at KCS in the U.S. and Mexico, but despite that, “it has not impacted our ability to provide crews for essential train operations.

“KCS has aggressively implemented important health and safety measures, like required mask wearing, social distancing, handwashing, medical management, intensified cleaning of equipment and facilities, etc. All of these efforts combined are helping KCS keep people healthy, while maintaining essential operations for our customers and the larger economy,” KCS said.

Railroads inconsistent in COVID-19 responses: BMWED

Although the railroads have been stocking employees with sanitation equipment, rail workers see several problems with how the railroads have responded to the pandemic, according to Jed Dodd, vice president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division (BMWED). BMWED is affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

One concern is that the railroads have been inconsistent with how they deploy CDC’s safety protocols. Dodd argues that while some industries and individual companies such as Amazon have required employees to undergo temperature tests and contact tracing, the railroads have been haphazard in deploying those measures.

Since March, BMWED has determined that there have been 10 coronavirus-related fatalities, with “hundreds” of people out sick.

“It’s the complete lack of direction on the use of these [cleaning] supplies and how to get them,” Dodd said. “There is an effort to get cleaning supplies out but it’s not a major focus of the railroad company and so a lot of people fall through the cracks.”

Another problem is that the burden of ensuring a safe work environment falls on the employee, which is due in part to the broader industry’s culture, in which injuries are the fault of the employee because the employee violated the rules, according to Dodd.

But the biggest problem is that the railroads differ in their lost-time policies, with some companies offering those policies while others don’t. But even if companies offer lost-time policies, it can take months for an employee to collect those benefits, Dodd said. He cited CSX as one company where members have encountered challenges with lost-time policies.

As a result, “we believe there are many more people who are very reluctant to report symptoms in fear that they won’t be able to work,” Dodd said.

Dodd attributes what he considers the inconsistent response of the rail industry to the lack of direction from the federal government and the White House on how to cope with the pandemic.

“In the beginning, I don’t think you could hold the railroads responsible. But a month later, it’s time to wake up,” Dodd said, adding that if the railroads require employees to come to work, they should be the ones responsible for keeping employees as safe as possible.

CSX responded to Dodd’s assertions about lost-time policies, saying, “Our highest priority is the safety and well-being of our employees, their families and the communities where we operate. Employees unable to work due to the impacts of COVID may use paid time off entitlements provided under their respective collective bargaining agreements and sickness benefits provided by the Railroad Retirement Board.”

Separately, UP said it is giving union-affiliated “agreement employees” who have worked at least 30 days during the pandemic a one-time $1,000 gross bonus in December. The bonus applies to all current agreement employees, including those who have been furloughed, who have worked for at least 30 days between March 1 and Nov. 30.

“While many fellow citizens were sheltering in place, our craft professionals rolled up their sleeves and answered the nation’s call during one of its greatest times of need,” said UP President and CEO Lance Fritz. “The pivotal role these essential employees play delivering critical supplies and keeping the economy open cannot be emphasized enough. This recognition reflects how notable their efforts are and how much their great work is appreciated.”

Meanwhile, the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference (TCRC) said it is working with the railroads to address pandemic-related safety concerns.

Coronavirus cases totaled 337,555 nationwide as of Monday, according to the Canadian government, with cases climbing sharply after Oct. 1.

“In collaboration with the rail companies, we enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols for locomotives, rest facilities and other locations. We also lobbied for paid time off for members who are asked by the company to self-isolate,” said Lyndon Isaak, TCRC president. “Although we found common ground for many issues, we are still attempting to address others. Outstanding challenges include safe training methods and maintaining consistent cleaning and disinfecting protocols across the various rail systems.”

Isaak continued, “With cases rising at a dramatic rate in Canada, our goal is to protect rail workers at all costs. We will do this by maintaining pressure on the carriers to ensure that the pandemic protocols are strictly followed and continue to be effective in this fast-changing situation. The stakes are high when it comes to the health and safety of our members. If our rail systems go down, what will happen to our country?”

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, SMART-Transportation Division and the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO didn’t respond to requests for comment. Canadian Pacific (NYSE: CP), CN (NYSE: CNI) and Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) also didn’t return requests for comment.

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