Progressive lawmakers including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez led dozens of their colleagues Friday in calling on President Joe Biden to take executive action to ensure railroad workers are afforded the paid sick leave they have long called for, but which was left out of a contract brokered by the White House.
“While this agreement was much better than the disastrous proposals put forward by the rail industry, it still does not guarantee a single paid sick day to rail workers who work dangerous and difficult jobs, have risked their lives during the pandemic to keep our economy moving, and have not received a pay raise in over three years,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote of the agreement which freight rail workers were forced to accept even though four unions that represent the majority of the workforce had rejected it.
“That is unacceptable and must be rectified,” they wrote.
More than 70 lawmakers signed the letter, including Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Katie Porter (D-Calif.).
At Biden’s request, Congress last week prevented a rail strike with a resolution forcing the contract upon workers. Progressives in Congress had attempted to add seven paid sick days to the legislation, but right-wing Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) joined 42 Republicans in blocking the provision.
“It is literally beyond belief that rail workers are not guaranteed this basic and fundamental human right,” reads the letter. “Therefore, we urge you and your administration to do everything within your authority to guarantee rail workers the seven paid sick days that they desperately need through executive action.”
The letter sent to Biden Friday noted that in 2015, former President Barack Obama signed an executive order requiring companies with federal contracts to grant a minimum of seven days of paid sick leave to workers—but excluded rail workers from the protections, leaving them with a contract that provides zero paid sick days.
“As president, you and your administration have a number of tools at your disposal to make sure rail workers are guaranteed paid sick leave,” wrote the lawmakers. “You can and you must expand this executive order.”
Rail workers have reported in recent months that the workforce has grown increasingly strained under rail carriers’ stringent and arcane attendance policies, as their employers have forced many to work while fatigued or sick—potentially putting themselves and customers at risk.
“We have heard terrible and tragic stories from rail workers who have been penalized for spending the day in the hospital with their sick children,” said the lawmakers. “A locomotive engineer, who, out of fear of being fired, was forced to skip his doctor’s appointment after experiencing unusual symptoms, suffered a heart attack and died in an engine room just weeks later.”
“There is absolutely no reason why these workers should have to deal with these conditions in the richest country in the history of the world,” they wrote, noting that providing paid leave to workers would cost rail companies “$321 million—less than 2% of their annual profits.”
Friday’s letter noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) authorizes the U.S. secretary of labor to set mandatory safety and health standards for businesses that affect interstate commerce.
“We can think of few things that threaten the safety and health of workers more than being required to come into work sick and exhausted,” they wrote, “and we can think of few industries more quintessential to interstate commerce than freight rail.”
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