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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, May 31 — “No concessions and no punitive attendance policy.” That was the clear message delivered to BLET’s Norfolk Southern members over conference calls and Zoom meetings set up to explain the breakthrough tentative agreement announced on May 18. The new policy will provide up to seven paid sick days per year to BLET members working at NS.

During those meetings, the three General Chairmen who negotiated the tentative agreement, Dewayne Dehart, Scott Bunten, and Jerry Sturdivant, with the assistance of National Vice President Rick Gibbons, emphasized that the agreement came with no concessions by the union. And, unlike some agreements reached by other unions at NS, those taking sick leave will not be subjected to a punitive attendance policy. Detaching the punitive attendance policy from sick leave was a major hurdle that needed to be addressed, which is part of the reason why negotiations took longer than it did with some other rail unions the BLET negotiators explained.

The BLET was and is opposed to any sick leave policy that penalizes workers for getting sick. “It’s not in the public’s interest or our members’ best interest to have locomotive engineers and conductors handle some of the most dangerous items that any transportation group handles go to work sick or dangerously overtired because they’re worried about being penalized for making the safe choice,” said BLET First Vice President Mark Wallace.

The agreement will provide 3,300 NS engineers represented by BLET with five days of paid sick leave every year while also offering the flexibility to use up to two additional days of existing paid time off as sick leave. This is the first time that locomotive engineers at any of the Class I railroads have been able to successfully bargain for paid sick leave.

The new paid sick leave policy is accompanied by a quality-of-life agreement that requires approval by members under the union’s bylaws. This second agreement offers additional preservation of earnings to NS engineers when they use paid sick leave, as well as greater protection for vacation time, further enhancing the paid sick leave deal. For example, an engineer who doesn’t use his or her sick leave may receive a cash reimbursement for up to five days of leave not taken at the end of the calendar year. The new sick leave rules will become effective upon ratification of the second agreement. A ratification vote is expected within the next month.

The lack of paid sick leave for frontline workers who keep the supply chain moving was one of the factors that almost led to a national freight rail strike in 2022. Negotiations for paid sick leave by all of the railroad unions with each of the Class I railroads have been underway since the start of the year. Beginning in February, the “non-operational” crafts were successful in achieving paid sick leave agreements that provided four days of leave. However, for those workers in the operating crafts, locomotive engineers and conductors, four days of paid sick leave was seen as insufficient due to irregular work schedules and often lengthy periods on the road.