Editorial: Of course railroad workers should get paid sick leave. So should all workers

Editorial: Of course railroad workers should get paid sick leave. So should all workers

Approaching year three of a global pandemic, it’s shocking that the U.S. is still debating whether workers should be allowed to take time off work when they’re sick or need to see a doctor.

Yet sick leave has been at the heart of the threatened railroad worker strike. Railroad companies and a dozen railroad employee unions were at loggerheads for months; the main sticking point, particularly for the conductors and engineers who operate the trains, was the lack of guaranteed sick days so workers could take time off when they are ill, have medical appointments or family emergencies without being punished.

Congress on Thursday voted to block the strike by imposing a labor agreement on the railroads and unions — which had been tentatively accepted by the unions’ leaders — that includes pay hikes but no paid sick days. The Senate couldn’t muster enough votes to include seven paid sick days in the new agreement, as the House had done, meaning workers will continue to have to show up when they are ill or face disciplinary action. President Biden, who had helped negotiated the tentative labor agreement without the paid sick days, is expected to sign the measure into law immediately.

This was a missed opportunity for the Biden administration and lawmakers to codify what should be a common sense policy — American workers deserve guaranteed paid sick days. Pay hikes are not a substitute for paid leave. After more than two years of a pandemic, it should be clear that allowing workers to take time off when they are ill is not just a worker benefit — it’s a public health protection. There is a broad societal interest in making sure employees can stay home when they are sick.

Railroad workers do not have guaranteed paid sick days. They can take vacation days for personal business including medical appointments, but union leaders have complained that those days must be approved far in advance and can be denied. If workers suddenly become ill or need to see a doctor quickly, they can face disciplinary action for taking time off, according to the unions. The situation is made worse by staff cuts and operational changes designed to boost profits that have meant workers are frequently on call, work irregular schedules and have little time off.

In September, the Biden administration helped negotiate a tentative contract between the railroads and the unions that included a 24% pay increase. Four of the 12 unions rejected the deal because it did not include paid sick days or address scheduling. The unions had planned to strike Dec. 9.

Afraid that a railroad strike could upend the already fragile U.S. economy and send consumer prices even higher, Biden urged Congress to use its power under the 1926 Railway Labor Act to block the strike. (The act gives Congress the authority to intervene in rail labor disputes that threaten to disrupt interstate commerce.) And that’s what has happened this week.

Some lawmakers opposed intervening in a labor dispute, even though Congress has done it 18 times over the last century. Others said adding paid sick days would reward the workers who voted against the tentative contract, “gambling that they would secure a better deal from Congress.”

The railroad companies were able to gamble too. The companies had less incentive to offer paid sick leave or make adjustments to their profitable, punishing scheduling systems knowing that Congress would probably intervene to block the strike and impose the tentative contract to avoid broader economic harm. Biden too made a calculated decision to prioritize avoiding a strike, while leaving the issue of improving working conditions for conductors and engineers for another day.

“Now, within this agreement, we’re gonna avoid the rail strike, keep the rails running, keep things moving, and we’re gonna go back and we’re gonna get paid leave — not just for rail workers, but for all workers,” Biden said Thursday.

That’s far easier said than done, as we saw this week.

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