A few weeks later, on June 16, Helles suffered a heart attack and died in the engine room of a BNSF freight train somewhere between Kansas City, Missouri, and Fort Madison, Iowa — a tragedy that helped fuel a labor crisis. Last week it almost shut down the US economy.
Railroad attendance policies were at the center of a dramatic standoff between the nation’s largest railroad companies and rail workers, who did not strike after President Biden and other top administration officials brokered a last-minute deal early Thursday. The deal includes a 24 percent wage increase by 2024 – the largest for rail workers in more than four decades – and new flexibility for workers to take time off when they are hospitalized or to attend routine doctor appointments without penalty.
But discontent among railway workers is still brewing. They say few details have been provided about the agreement, leaving the points-based attendance policy in place for other types of emergencies. Some say they doubt the deal will address their core concerns about quality of life amid a painful labor shortage and the continuing spread of the coronavirus.
“Everyone is worried about the points,” said Joel Dixon, BNSF captain and best friend of Hills for more than two decades. “It’s always a question of whether Aaron would still be around if he made a doctor’s appointment. He and I talk every day. We were brothers.”
The BNSF did not discuss the details of Hiles’ death but noted that employees receive generous leave packages and can take time off when needed without fear of reprisal. The company said it is committed to working with employees when “extenuating circumstances” emerge but that points-based policies are necessary to keep trains running during a difficult labor crisis.
still reaction Social media He has been furious since union leaders pulled out of a deal that guaranteed railroad workers an extra day’s pay. Some workers said they were unsure of how negotiators would arrive at these policies, tug-of-war of proposals in 20-hour closed-door talks at Labor Department offices.
Union leaders say more specific contract language will be distributed to workers in the coming weeks and will be explained in education sessions aimed at persuading workers to ratify the agreements.
The stakes are high. Unless union leaders persuade 115,000 workers in 12 unions to vote to ratify the contracts, a nationwide rail strike could still be made — and could upset much of the country’s supply chain ahead of the midterm elections.
Points-based attendance policies date back to 2020, when Union Pacific, one of the nation’s largest carriers, rolled out new rules to help ensure employment during the pandemic. Under these policies, employees are awarded a certain number of points, which are deducted when they miss an order to come to work or be called out of work unexpectedly. If their total score drops significantly, penalties up to and including termination can be applied.
The BNSF adopted its points-based attendance policy in February 2022. Unions called the BNSF policy “the worst and most outrageous attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier.”
The BNSF said the policy had been implemented to “stimulate a consistent and reliable presence” amid increasing demand for services that are running smoothly. Employees can earn points by agreeing to be contacted for 14 consecutive days.
Railroad companies have been dealing with high turnover and labor shortages for the past two years. The Department of Labor has reported that rail transportation has fallen by 12,500 jobs since the pandemic began.
Under these policies, union leaders say workers have lost points or faced penalties for being labeled sick with the virus, having a heart attack, and being in a severe road accident. Another employee lost points after he missed work when his mother passed away.
BNSF spokesperson Benjamin Willemon denied the allegations, saying that the system may automatically assign points for absences but that employees can explain the situation to their supervisor and get their points back.
Wilmon said the BNSF’s attendance policy is designed so that “employees can take time off when needed” and that “employees are encouraged to use their points without fear of retribution.” He noted that points are available to be used for doctor visits and that employees have at least three weeks of vacation and 10 personal days available to them.
“It is unfortunate that some have used the death of Mr. Helles to advance their agenda while ignoring the realities of this tragic situation,” Wilmon said. “Out of respect for his family, the BNSF will not discuss the circumstances surrounding his death.”
Willemon also noted that workers got a 25 percent increase in personal days this year and that employees cannot work more than six consecutive days under federal law.
Union leaders say the federal law allowance is misleading, because the time you are stranded in a hotel, after working a long shift, waiting to be called to work, does not count as a working day.
BNSF confirmed that simply missing a BNSF phone call to get to work results in a 15-point deduction. Many conductors and engineers live in rural areas of the country with limited cellular service. Once connected, workers have 90 minutes to two hours to come to work, regardless of the time of day and the distance they are from their station. No-shows to work on weekends, holidays, and other “high impact” days, such as Super Bowl Sunday and Mother’s Day, lead to the biggest discounts. Although employees can earn points by being there for 14 days in a row.
Union officials say more than 700 BNSF employees have quit their jobs since the policy was implemented in February, exacerbating the workload of those who remain.
BNSF’s Willimon said the company has seen more workers take vacation days planned since introducing its attendance-based policy. He said workers take off an average of 24 hours between each shift and that this number has increased since the attendance policy began. He added that this policy resulted in fewer attendance-based discipline procedures.
BNSF staff say the points-based attendance system has worsened a challenging occupation already affecting their mental and physical health. Many railway workers suffer from chronic health problems, such as obesity and sleep apnea, according to union officials. Workers regularly stay in motels for days on end, unsure of when they will return home, exacerbating tensions in already strained marriages and relationships with their children.
Jordan Boone, 41, a BNSF squad leader in Galesburg, Illinois, has five children at home. Boone said that since the policy took effect in February, he’s missed most sports, birthdays, parties and holidays. If he is lucky, He can squeeze in a few hours with his family a week.
“The BNSF came up with this policy, because of all the cuts they’ve made, and they’re trying to do everything they can to get us to take the slack. Spending time away from family has a huge impact on our mental health,” Boone said. I know people who have missed doctor’s appointments for months and months because of this policy.”
Aaron Hills signed a rail job at the BNSF in Galesburg after serving in the Marines in Desert Storm and Somalia. The job was prestigious, but life on the railways was difficult. Helles spent weeks away from home, living out of hotels, working during Christmas and other holidays, collecting coins and reading about current events to pass the time.
Hills’ parents said things took a turn for the worse when the BNSF adopted the updated points policy in February. They noted that Aaron looked “really tired and exhausted”.
“When he told us about the mandate, I said, ‘Someone is going to have a heart attack and die,’ and he said, ‘Yes, they will,'” remembers his mother, Donna Hills.
On the day Heels died, two BNSF representatives traveled to his home in Lee Summit, Mo. , to inform his wife. She called his parents to inform them of their son’s death.
BNSF paid for Hiles’ funeral, but his parents never heard from them directly.
It’s devastating,” Donna Hills said. “He was larger than life. He was kind-hearted. I dare you to find someone to hate him. He had hundreds of friends.”
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