Easing the pain of furloughs

May 11, 2009

By UTU Assistant President Arty Martin

As a union, we can’t make the economy better, but we always attempt to make life better for our members caught up in the downturn.

Many younger members, having left non-railroad employment to take railroad jobs, have now found themselves furloughed, and their hopes for a better future for their families are in a shambles.

At the International and general committee levels, we continue to work to protect those affected members and their families, as well as all our brothers and sisters.

As reported in the May issue of the UTU News, we are assisting our members in preserving health-care benefits during this economic downturn.

On Delbert Strunk’s Norfolk Southern general committee (GO 687), Strunk convinced NS to suspend a contract clause requiring newly hired furloughed employees to be terminated permanently following 365 days of consecutive furlough. Thus, they will continue to accrue seniority for time on furlough and not have to go through the rehiring process when the economy improves, no matter how long the layoff.

In meetings with the National Carriers’ Conference Committee, which represents all major railroads, we have asked the carriers to explore productive alternatives to layoffs. We emphasized that short-term economic gains from layoffs could backfire as we approach the peak vacation season and implementation in July of new hours of service regulations, both of which will limit availability of qualified operating crews.

One small solution is to find an innovative way to keep furloughed employees on a partial work schedule, which continues their family health-care benefits, Railroad Retirement credits and seniority accumulation. That, we told carriers, is good business, as it lessens the likelihood that younger employees will depart the railroad permanently, triggering, eventually, an expensive search for new hires who have to be trained from scratch. 

As an example, on Union Pacific, at numerous locations, we have negotiated creation of continuous employment boards, which provide younger employees, subject to layoff, with a minimum of eight days’ work per month. These continuous employment boards do not affect operation of any existing extra board.

With such boards in place, the younger employees retain full health-care and retirement benefits, and continue to accrue seniority. These workers are able to pursue part-time employment elsewhere, with knowledge that their families are protected, and that when the recession ends, they will return to full-time employment with the railroad.

We would like to see this model extended to all carriers.

The UP recognized this as good business sense, for history shows that laid-off employees frequently do not return to railroad employment, creating a significant cost to the carrier of hiring and training replacements when business levels return to pre-recession levels.

Moreover, given that train and engine service employees work mostly unsupervised, keeping the morale of the workforce at high levels is crucial to providing world-class customer service and ensuring safe operations.

Be assured that at the International and general committee levels, we will continue efforts to convince carriers it is good business to provide workers with financial security, which translates to high levels of morale, loyalty and job expertise.