Paid leave – not just a women’s issue

By Sapna Mehta

This blog originally appeared on Medium.

As the nation edges closer to a possible rail strike, President Biden is calling on Congress to intervene. That move came after four unions representing 55 percent of the rail workforce rejected a tentative agreement that averted an earlier strike. 

A shutdown of U.S. railroads would impact everything from retail goods transport during the busy holiday season to our energy supply as we enter the cold winter months. Rail workers and their families would also lose much-needed income. The rail workers’ major demand? Finally getting paid sick leave. 

Because most U.S. care workers and caregivers are women, the need for paid sick leave is often deemed a women’s issue when in fact it is an everyone issue. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 92 percent of all U.S rail transportation workers are men. They report not having access to a single paid sick day and are often penalized for using unpaid leave.

Workers cite the lack of paid sick leave as a key reason for the rejection of the tentative deal. BMWED president Tony Cardwell said in a statement “Railroaders do not feel valued. They resent …that management holds no regard for their quality of life, illustrated by their stubborn reluctance to provide a higher quantity of paid time off, especially for sickness.”

Workers and families need a permanent fix. It’s time for Congress to guarantee paid sick leave nationwide.

Draconian attendance and scheduling policies are at the center of the paid sick leave debacle. Most railroads use a punitive points-based attendance system, which, for example, docks workers’ points for taking any unpaid leave–whether for illness or a family emergency.

When rail workers aren’t on duty, they’re forced to remain “on-call” about 90 percent of the time. If assigned a last-minute shift, they must show up within two hours—and can lose points for being unavailable. Once they’re out of points, they risk being fired. The mental and physical toll this grueling schedule takes on workers is enormous.

Prior to the September agreement, the two biggest rail unions put out a joint statement revealing that railroad scheduling policies were “destroying the lives” of workers. Without sick leave, rail workers are forced to make impossible choices.

As one labor leader told Vice—workers have to decide “whether they save their points or they go to a brother or uncle’s funeral. I had one guy who didn’t have any points to take off because he had just been sick in the ER and couldn’t take his pregnant wife to the doctor.”

This precision scheduled railroading” has been part of a 20-year effort by rail companies to reduce costs through deep labor cuts. Over the last six years, rail companies have shed 45,000 employees.

While workers suffer, the cuts have contributed to record profits at the largest railroads. In 2021, one company, BNSF, reported a net income of nearly $6 billion. Instead of investing in their workforce—by adequately staffing so workers aren’t perpetually on call and guaranteeing workers paid sick leave—companies have paid out nearly $200 billion in stock buybacks and shareholder dividends since 2010.

The United States, unlike many peer nations, doesn’t have a national paid sick leave law. Twenty-nine million workers across many different sectors still lack access to a single paid sick day.

In 2015, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) first introduced a national paid sick leave law—the Healthy Families Act—and it has been reintroduced in every subsequent Congress. The bill would create a national paid sick leave standard, providing up to seven paid sick days annually for most workers. It would be a critical step toward meeting the health and financial needs of working people.

The Biden Administration and the majority of congressional Democrats are supportive of the policy. To date, no congressional Republicans have expressed support.

As a result, even amidst a devastating pandemic, Congress hasn’t secured permanent paid sick leave for the nation’s workers. If there were a national sick leave law, the railroads’ actions would be illegal. In the absence of federal legislation, it’s simply more profitable for them to treat workers as expendable.

We’ve seen this pattern across other industries, including retail and food service. Workers are getting increasingly squeezed amid soaring corporate profits. Uneven wage growth and rising corporate-driven inflation make it difficult for working families to afford basic necessities.

Paid leave isn’t only a women’s issue—just ask a rail worker. Congress must guarantee paid sick leave to all workers.