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Rail union mulls action against Union Pacific over COVID-19 woes

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED) is threatening to take action against Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP), saying that the railroad hasn’t done enough to protect workers against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The union, which is affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, said it would take action if Union Pacific (UP) didn’t respond to safety demands by Sunday.

“Hundreds of Union Pacific employees have contracted COVID-19 at work,” with two members dying and “dozens” hospitalized, BMWED said on Friday. UP employed 32,000 workers total in mid-November, according to data submitted to the Surface Transportation Board, including over 8,000 maintenance of way employees. The union is asking for full quarantine pay and “common sense COVID-19 safeguards on the job.”

“Our union leadership has urged UP management to do more to ensure our safety since the start of the Pandemic. Management is clearly more interested in grinding profits out of us for the shareholders than investing in our safety. Management’s greed in this moment WILL NOT STAND,” BMWED said.

“Federal law protects our right to withdraw from service if dangerous workplace conditions present an ‘imminent danger of death or serious injury,’” the union continued.

In a Thursday letter to UP President and CEO Lance Fritz, BMWED outlined several measures that the union would like UP to adopt. They include:

  • Continuation of pay, which would encourage employees to be tested for contracting the coronavirus since they would not feel compelled to go to work because of fear of losing their earnings.

  • Access to testing on the job site and on company time.

  • Temperature testing prior to work shifts.

  • Contact tracing following an exposure at work.

  • Daily access to personal protective equipment such as face masks and hand cleaners, as well as adequate sanitation supplies in group areas and for machines and locomotives.

  • Social distancing requirements in public-use areas.

Union Pacifc’s response

Although the union didn’t specifically say on Friday that it would strike, UP said Monday that it has filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska to stop BMWED from striking.

“Union Pacific had no choice but to take this threat seriously, and we were forced to seek court intervention to prevent the BMWED from acting on its threats. 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,” UP said.

The railroad continued, “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. We are unwilling to allow BMWED to unilaterally shut down Union Pacific’s 23-state operations — which are critical to the recovery of the American economy — based on concerns that have been, and will continue to be, addressed.”

UP has said previously that it provided union-affiliated “agreement employees” who have worked at least 30 days during the pandemic a one-time $1,000 gross bonus in December. The bonus applied to all current agreement employees, including those who have been furloughed, who have worked at least 30 days between March 1 and Nov. 30.

BMWED responded to UP’s comments by saying that UP’s COVID-19 protocols are “inadequate,” especially since the nature of the work of maintenance-of-way employees requires workers to be in close proximity with others. As a result, the union argues that continuing to work under those protocols creates an imminent threat of serious injury or death as defined under the Federal Railroad Safety Act.

This article originally appeared on Freight Waves

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