With daily headlines nationwide about railroad safety legislation, it has come to feel like every day is “Railroad Day on the Hill.” However, the event is formally held once a year on the legislative calendar for representatives from rail unions and rail carriers alike to descend on D.C. to discuss the issues that face our industry.

Members of the SMART Transportation Division contingent, including Alt. National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and Vice President Chad Adams, meet with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (front, right) on May 17 in Washington, D.C.

Under normal circumstances, building relationships with the 535 members of Congress falls on SMART-TD’s staff of three in our Washington D.C. National Legislative Department, but on May 17th’s Railroad Safety Day, plenty of reinforcements within our union marched forth to lead the effort with other labor groups.

This support came in the form of 35 men and women representing 15 different states. State legislative directors, vice state legislative directors, general chairpersons, local legislative reps and state legislative vice chairs from across the country answered the call to help SMART-TD National Legislative Director Greg Hynes, Alternate National Legislative Director Jared Cassity and Legislative Department Chief of Staff, Jenny Miller educate our nation’s lawmakers on rail safety.

This formidable group of SMART-TD representatives was not in D.C. as tourists. Between the group of attendees, they held over 100 meetings with legislators sharing the gospel of the Railway Safety Act of 2023, shorter trains, increased quality of life and better safety inspections of rolling stock with any Congress member or staffer willing to listen.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders addresses a rally for paid sick leave for U.S. workers Wednesday, May 18, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

In addition to holding this important series of meetings and reaching out to over 100 members of the House and Senate, SMART-TD representatives attended a press conference in support of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as he announced his legislation known as the Healthy Families Act. This legislation includes provisions ensuring that every company with over 100 employees provides a minimum of 7 paid sick days to its employees. This bill has language in it that speaks directly to railroad companies.

This bill indicates the progress our union made in the 2022 national contract negotiations. In December 2022, Sanders pushed for similar legislation that was strictly aimed at railroaders and though it won a majority of votes in both the House and Senate, it failed to get the 60 votes it needed to carry a filibuster-proof supermajority and make it to President Biden’s desk to be signed into law.

U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming (left), U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman, SMART-Td Wyoming State Legislative Director April Ford and U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis meet on Railroad Safety Day May 18, 2023.
U.S. Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming (left), U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman, SMART-TD Wyoming State Legislative Director April Ford and U.S. Sen. Cynthia Lummis meet on Railroad Safety Day May 18, 2023.

With the ramifications of this bill’s success weighing heavily on the quality-of-life improvements that SMART-TD continues to seek for our members, Sen. Sanders reached out to SMART’s Legislative Department and made a point of inviting our representatives to his press conference.

Following the successes of the day’s events, NLD Hynes expressed his gratitude to the army of SMART-TD leaders who made the trip.

“These men and women went above and beyond the call of duty to be here today, and because of them, we had a fantastic show of force in the halls of Congress. The validity of our issues speaks for itself, but when leaders from these different states show up to meet with their congressional and senate delegations it makes an impact on these lawmakers,” he said. “They hear from Jared Cassity and me all the time, but when someone from home comes to meet with them in D.C., it puts a face to our issues in a unique way.

“I want to thank each and every one of them for making the effort to come out this year, and with your help, we will deliver on the promise of the Railway Safety Act, the REEF Act, and all the issues that speak to the quality of life our members deserve and the dignity of the work they do each day.”

Under the Budget Control Act of 2011, and a subsequent sequestration order to implement mandated cuts, Railroad Retirement Board-administered unemployment and sickness insurance benefits were reduced by a set percentage that is subject to revision at the beginning of each fiscal year. In December 2020, in an effort to minimize the effects the COVID-19 pandemic was having on the rail industry, Congress passed the Continued Assistance to Rail Workers Act (CARWA).

This legislation temporarily suspended the sequestration, and railroad workers who were eligible for unemployment and sickness benefits from RRB went back to receiving the full dollar amount of their benefits. This legislation was intended to be temporary, relieving out-of-work rail employees during the pandemic, and its language stated that the suspension of the benefit cuts would end 30 days after the date the COVID-19 state of emergency was terminated.

On April 10, 2023, President Biden officially declared the end of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency by signing House Joint Resolution 7. The 30-day clock to the reinstatement of the RRB benefit cuts runs out next month.

To avoid these cuts, the Railroad Employment Equity and Fairness (REEF) Act was introduced April 20 in the House by U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.-District 9), a chief deputy whip and a senior member of the House Budget Committee, alongside Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.-District 1), Rep. Rick Larsen (Wash.-District 2), Rep. Don Bacon (Neb.-District 2), Rep. Chuy Garcia (Ill.-District 4), and Rep. Pete Stauber (Minn.-District 8). U.S. Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), introduced the bill in the Senate.

The current RRB daily rate for unemployment is $85 and pays out five days weekly for biweekly payment of $850. After the emergency relief’s expiration, the daily rate for unemployment will become $80.15 daily for a biweekly total of $801.50. This bill will reduce the payment of our out-of-work brothers and sisters by $48.50 per pay period.

Sickness benefits paid to an employee within six months from the date last worked for a reason other than an on-the-job injury are also subject to regular Tier I Railroad Retirement taxes, resulting in a further reduction of 7.65%. Applying the 5.7% reduction to these sickness benefits will result in a maximum two-week total received of $740.23.

If these cuts seem aimed at the most-vulnerable population within our union, that is because they are. The sequestration for unemployed, sick, and injured railroaders benefits that the pandemic relief temporarily eliminated already has been done away with for other federal retirement plans. This clawing-back of funds, implemented 12 years ago, is literally only applicable to the Railroad Retirement Board. Allowing the CARWA Act to fall off the table accomplishes nothing other than taking a $50 bill out of the hands of our out-of-work brothers and sisters every other week while they are struggling to bridge the gap until they can get back to the rails.

SMART-TD is asking you to rally around our own by contacting your House representative as well as your U.S. senators to demand they support a permanent end to sequestration of railroad unemployment and sickness insurance benefits. By reintroducing and passing the REEF Act, Congress can restore railroaders’ hard-earned benefits.

This sequestration is out of date, and unfairly targeted at our profession. Please follow the link provided to make your voice heard to protect the hard-working men and women in your crew base when they are in financial difficulty.

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced S. 4860, the Railroad Employee Equality and Fairness Act or the REEF Act, which would end the sequester on the Railroad Retirement Board’s (RRB) Unemployment Insurance Account. Due to the Budget Control Act of 2011, and a subsequent sequestration order to implement mandated spending cuts, railroad unemployment benefits have been reduced by a set percentage that is subject to revision at the beginning of each fiscal year. Currently, the sequester, as it relates to the RRB, continues until fiscal year 2030. Without this legislation, it is expected that the sequestration will result in a 5.7 percent reduction in railroad unemployment benefits through fiscal year 2030.

Since most interstate railroad workers’ payroll taxes are diverted to the RRB, unemployed railroad workers are not eligible for federal unemployment insurance benefits, which was not subject to the sequester. This resulted in railroad workers taking a cut in expected benefits that the general public was not subject to. This is particularly concerning during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the RRB received 35,030 unemployment claims. As of September 2020, it has received 133,899 claims, nearly a fourfold increase.

“I’m proud to introduce this bipartisan legislation to ensure that unemployed railroad workers receive fair and equal unemployment benefits. This legislation would remove the harmful sequester that largely singled out railroad workers’ unemployment benefits during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of the sequester has meant these railroad workers have not received the full unemployment insurance benefits that are due to them. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused nearly five times as many Ohio railroad workers to lose their jobs through no fault of their own and I urge my colleagues to join me in ensuring they are eligible for the same full unemployment benefits as all Americans,” said Portman.

“Our workers are facing enormous challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic and railroad workers have been hit particularly hard,” Klobuchar said. “This legislation ensures railroad employees are eligible for the same benefits as other workers and will help them get through these trying times.”

S. 4860 was read twice before the Senate Oct. 26 and referred to the Committee on the Budget. No other actions have taken place.