UTU: 'EMPLOYEES ENTITLED TO A FAMILY LIFE'
Union Pacific Railroad began allowing more undisturbed rest time between shifts this week to cut fatigue among train crews, reports Stacie Hamel in the Omaha World-Herald.
The change was ratified by members of the United Transportation Union, which represents mostly conductors, and one section of workers who belong to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen.
Federal law requires that crews have at least eight hours off between shifts but allows employers to begin calling after six hours to arrange the next shift.
The UP change allows workers to choose eight, 10 or 12 hours of undisturbed rest when they clock out of work by computer. The railroad is bound by the request, and there is no limit to the number of times a worker can request the longer rest periods.
Allowing longer undisturbed rest "is only a small first step" and won't solve the problem of fatigue as long as work shifts are unpredictable, said UTU spokesman Frank Wilner.
Concern about fatigue has increased over the past two years as shipping demand has risen at the same time railroads are contending with a shortage of train-crew workers.
The National Transportation Safety Board held a two-day hearing last week into the cause of a June 28 train crash near Macdona, Texas. A UP train hit a BNSF train, releasing a toxic cloud of chlorine gas and killing the conductor and two residents.
The hearing focused partly on the UP engineer's erratic work shifts during the months before the accident, though his work hours met federal requirements.
UP has been studying the problem of fatigue and proposed the rest time change last fall, said spokeswoman Kathryn Blackwell.
Workers now have the right to decline an assignment and request more rest time, but union rules require that crew members be called in order of seniority.
Even if a senior crew member requests more rest, Blackwell said, the next call could come just a short time later.
"That can be minutes. And that's by union rules," she said.
Although UTU approved the change, Wilner said the proposal isn't enough.
"Ten hours of uninterrupted rest does not give a person adequate sleep," Wilner said.
Commute time, personal chores and time with family all would cut into that time, he said.
"You don't go home and immediately get between the covers and begin sleeping," he said. "Ten hours of uninterrupted rest could mean you are still only getting four or five hours of sleep before you are called back."
The answer is regularly scheduled hours, he said.
"We need to go to predictable schedules, predictable days off. And recognition that employees are entitled to a family life," Wilner said. "Continual shifts of 12 hours on and 10 hours off not only treat an employee as if he were a machine, but create the problem of fatigue."
UP also would prefer set schedules on more of its routes "where it makes sense," Blackwell said.
The railroad proposed a set schedule to unions for its coal route between North Platte and South Morrill, Neb. The proposal was defeated.
Schedules also would reduce the crew-calling process.
"That is really cumbersome. It takes a lot of time," Blackwell said.
The UTU's position is that railroads and union members should approach Congress together.
"We can negotiate a joint position and present it to Congress, the same way we did with changes to Railroad Retirement," Wilner said.
The rest of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen, which is part of the Teamsters organization, has not yet replied to UP's proposal.
A Teamsters spokesman said he had no information on the plan.
"I don't even know if they've decided to vote on it," Galen Munroe said.