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House OKs rail labor agreement, sick leave measures

Sick leave provision faces uncertain road in Senate

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters about the legislation to avert a rail workers strike on Wednesday.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters about the legislation to avert a rail workers strike on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House on Wednesday approved resolutions that would enact a labor agreement reached by the White House, freight rail carriers and rail unions and provide an additional seven days of paid sick leave to rail workers.

Both resolutions have been deemed necessary by Democrats, some Republicans and President Joe Biden. Progressives in the Senate have said they would delay a version of the resolution that includes one “paid personal day.”

The resolutions included one to enact the labor agreement reached by the White House, railroad management and labor representatives, which passed 290-137, and another, which would add the sick leave demanded by four of the 12 rail unions and was adopted 221-207.

The second resolution is part of a complicated strategy to win support from progressive Democrats who insisted on a vote to add the sick leave. But it may not get enough Republican support in the Senate for the sick leave language to reach the president’s desk.

The votes are Congress’ most recent attempts to avert a rail strike scheduled to start next week. Affected rail companies estimated the strike could cost the economy about $2 billion per day, disrupting industries that rely on rail transportation amid the holiday season.

The resolution to enact the agreement, which was rejected by four of the 12 rail labor unions, would provide for three periods off for medical care visits annually. However, it also required the visits take place on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday and to be scheduled at least 30 days in advance. 

The agreement includes one of the largest wage packages in nearly five decades, according to its advocates, as well as health benefits. According to the Association of American Railroads, the agreement offers $16,000 a year in additional wages and other compensation for the average rail employee.

Workers’ concerns

But paid sick leave has become a sticking point for rail workers, many of whom worked in-person throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The railroad is a dangerous place to go to work. If you go to work sick, and your attention lapses, you make a mistake, a bad call of judgment, because you feel terrible that day from a cold or fever or flu, you could get run over by a train,” said Clark Ballew, spokesperson for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “These are not jobs at a desk, where you answer emails with a sore throat. These are jobs where the track next to you could have an Amtrak train blow by you at 79 mph.”

The House added the separate resolution to provide the additional seven paid sick days for rail workers to attempt to appease unions and pro-union progressives. However, the resolution is technically an “enrollment correction,” which allows the House to send over the additional sick time measure to the Senate as a separate piece of legislation.

If the House introduced the sick time resolution as an amendment, the Senate would have to consider the agreement with the resolution attached — a method that runs the risk of delaying approval of the agreement over Republican opposition to additional sick days. 

But the enrollment correction allows the Senate to consider the paid sick leave resolution and the rail agreement resolution as their own measures, appeasing progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who threatened Tuesday night to block passage of the underlying agreement until there was a vote on seven days of additional sick leave.

“Guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to rail workers would cost the rail industry a grand total of $321 million a year — less than 2% of its profits,” he wrote in a tweet. “Please don’t tell me the rail industry can’t afford it. Rail companies spent $25.5 billion on stock buybacks and dividends this year.”

The strategy could also be considered a symbolic gesture to support unions by moderate Democrats, who have received flak for advancing the rail labor agreement without paid sick leave despite their typical pro-union platforms. With two resolutions, moderate Democrats can still vote in favor of union demands, even though the extra sick time is unlikely to make it to Biden’s desk.

“We have proudly stood with working people with pro-union Democrats and President Biden … the tentative agreement has significant advances and has some time off, but what we need is paid sick leave for rail workers and every American,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said. “This way, we can safeguard American families and avert a devastating rail shutdown.”

However, it’s unclear how quickly the Senate will be able to pass the measure or its sick leave companion. 

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has already voiced opposition to passing the agreement, saying it’s “wrong for the Biden administration, which has failed to fight for workers, to ask Congress to impose a deal the workers themselves have rejected.” Sanders and other progressives have also come out against the bill over the absence of the additional sick leave.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also said Tuesday night that he believes there could be “significant Republican support” for an amendment that guarantees sick leave. He then told reporters later Wednesday that he plans to vote against the enrollment correction, further clouding what support for the resolutions will look like in the chamber.

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