By Eric Berger
A new employee attendance system introduced by BNSF this year has drawn harsh criticism from its employees and attracted the interest of politicians who say it may be contributing to manpower shortages that railroad managers are blaming for delays and poor on-time performance, as hundreds of employees have reportedly resigned in the wake of its implementation.
While BNSF said the new “Hi-Viz” policy helped the railroad achieve 80 percent crew availability in one month, the unions representing railroad employees working in train service called it “the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier” and were preparing to call for a strike against the railroad when BNSF obtained a federal court order blocking such action a week prior to its implementation on February 1.
Under the Hi Viz system, employees begin with 30 points and can be penalized anywhere from two to 28 points for failing to be available or report for work, depending on circumstances. Discipline results if an employee’s points go to zero. The program includes a dashboard where employees can check totals and see what has been subtracted or added to their totals. The policy requires rail workers to be available to work 29 of 30 days. Critics of the new system say it makes it nearly impossible for employees to live a normal life or even comply with quarantine requirements if infected with the COVID virus.
Though union leaders have urged members to ask governmental representatives to take legislative or administrative action to protect railroaders from aspects of the Hi-Viz policy they deem to be abusive or improper, some are taking their cues from Johnny Paycheck and saying “Take this job and shove it,” with more than 700 resignations during the first few weeks following its introduction.
In a practice resembling the use of locomotives stored in good order as a “surge fleet” for periods of greater demand, railroads, including BNSF, have in recent years expanded their use of the furlough as a means of reducing the workforce while maintaining a reserve of employees to meet the increased demand when it arises. Affected workers are left to find other employment during furlough periods, but railroad jobs have traditionally been attractive enough to bring them back in sufficient numbers. That practice apparently failed in March when a recall of furloughed employees on the Red River Division was reportedly met with resignations from 70 percent of those recalled, some with up to two decades of seniority.
These reactions prompted concern from five Republican congressmen, who in early April co-signed a letter urging BNSF to reopen negotiations with employees to develop a mutually acceptable system.
“We write today out of concern for BNSF Railway’s recently established absenteeism policy, called ‘Hi-Viz,’ and the growing number of resignations that have occurred since its implementation. Even a modest number of those resignations may pose additional stress to our already strained supply chain.” wrote Reps. Don Bacon (Nebraska), Brian K. Fitzpatrick (Pennsylvania), David McKinley (West Virginia), and Jeff Van Drew and Chris Smith (both of New Jersey).