Inside Logistics

Union threatens to strike over railroad’s virus protections

One of Union Pacific's main unions is threatening to strike if the railroad doesn't do more to protect its employees from the coronavirus


December 23, 2020
by Josh Funk THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

NORFOLK, Neb. – One of Union Pacific’s main unions is threatening to strike if the railroad doesn’t do more to protect its employees from the coronavirus.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division union said the Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad needs to offer its more than 30,000 employees full pay if they have to quarantine because of exposure to the virus, and it wants UP to bolster safety precautions in the workplace.

“The working conditions created by UP’s Covid-19 protocols have created a work site that is immediately hazardous to the life and health of our members,” Tony Caldwell, the union’s general chairman, said in a letter to UP management.

Union Pacific maintains that it is taking appropriate precautions to protect workers from the virus, and it has gone to court to block the union from striking because it says the dispute should be resolved through collective bargaining. The railroad argues that a strike would unfairly harm the companies that rely on the railroad for shipping.

“We have worked hard to ensure the safety of our employees, while continuing to move the goods and products that our country needs to support current freight demands and recover from the pandemic,” Union Pacific spokeswoman Elizabeth Graham said. “We implemented a robust pandemic response to ensure that our employees remain safe and are compensated if required to be off of work because of a work-related exposure to the virus.”

A federal judge is set to hear arguments Wednesday over whether the union should be allowed to strike.

The union said Union Pacific employees that have to quarantine themselves because they have been exposed to the virus aren’t being paid their full wages, and the railroad may not pay employees if they have to quarantine themselves multiple times, so there is an incentive to continue coming to work even when sick.

The union, which represents about 8,000 Union Pacific employees, also said the railroad should also offer coronavirus testing regularly at its work sites, screen employees’ temperatures before they start work and do more to ensure social distancing.

Jed Dodd, the union’s national vice-president, said the group has similar concerns about virus precautions at the other major railroads, but it decided to press the issue first with Union Pacific.

Union Pacific is one of the nation’s largest railroads, and it operates 52,000 kilometres of track in 23 Western states.