Brady Wassam knew what to expect when he took a job on the railroad. Wassam, 30, of Columbia Falls, came from a family of railroaders who have spent years moving freight over the mountains of northwest Montana.
“It’s a family affair [and] I knew what I was getting into,” he said to The Montana Free Press. “I knew I would get called to work in the middle of the night. I knew I’d have no regular schedule. I knew that because that’s how my family lived.”
Freight trains don’t usually run on a set schedule and they don’t stop moving just because it’s a weekend or holiday. However, on the flip side of that unpredictable lifestyle was the fact that for many years railroads could provide workers with great compensation and benefits without requiring a college degree. The good pay and benefits were the reasons Wassam hired on back in 2014.
But Wassam says working conditions on BNSF Railway, one of the largest railroads in the country, have worsened in the last few years, and the introduction of a new attendance policy earlier this year — one union officials have called “the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier” — was his last straw. He resigned in March and he’s not alone. In the last three months, more than 700 railroaders have walked off the job at BNSF because of it, according to the union.
“It felt offensive,” Wassam said of the new attendance policy. “I gave so much to this job, and this new system made it seem like it wasn’t enough.”
Federal law mandates that locomotive engineers, conductors and other railroad employees work no more than 12 hours a day and have a minimum of 10 hours off between shifts. But even with those hours written in stone, working for the railroad can be a chaotic existence — one day an engineer might go to work at 9 a.m., and the next day they might start at 5 p.m. Not to mention the fact that half the time they would be spending their off time away from home, taking their 10 hours rest and waiting to take another train back to their home terminal. Wassam said the unusual hours made living a normal life nearly impossible, even more so with a family.
“You give up so much when you work for the railroad, but it impacts your family even more,” he said, adding that for years he’s never known if he’ll be able to be home for holidays and other special events.
Wassam said when he started at the railroad, employees could normally take five weekdays and two weekend days off per month. At the beginning of each month, the railroad would look back at the last 90 days, and if an employee had been available to work 75% of the time then they remained in good standing, according to Wassam. That system made it possible to take personal days for things like doctor’s appointments, family commitments and more.
It was also possible to predict when you might go to work in the next day or so, Wassam said. Railroads have “pools” of engineers and conductors that work certain segments of railroads, such as Whitefish to Havre. When a train arrived at a terminal they would call the first available engineer and conductor to take it to its next destination. If those employees weren’t available, they would call employees off the “extra board,” who tended to have less seniority on the job and an even more chaotic schedule. Calling employees off the extra board avoided disrupting the schedule for the regular pool employees, meaning if an engineer or conductor knew there were eight crews ahead of them on the call list they could make an educated guess about when they might be called to run a train — regardless of whether someone ahead of them decided to take a personal day or called in sick.
But not long after Wassam got hired, BNSF changed how it assigned its employees to trains. Instead of having them work the same stretch of track every trip, the company would call employees to work trains going in any direction out of their home base: Instead of working from Whitefish to Havre on every run, Wassam might instead get called to take a train to Spokane. At about the same time, BNSF also decided to put fewer employees on the “extra board,” Wassam said. Those two things combined to make it even harder to figure out when an employee might get called to work.
Wassam and other BNSF employees that Montana Free Press spoke with said the change made an already challenging work-life balance worse, but it was nothing compared to what was announced in January. Starting Feb. 1, the railroad implemented a new attendance policy called “Hi-Viz” that assigns all employees 30 points. If they miss a call or take an unplanned day off, even for a family emergency, sickness or fatigue, they lose points. The exact number of points deducted depends on the type of absence and where it falls on the calendar (weekend days and holidays cost more points). An employee can get four points back if they’re available to work 14 days in a row. If an employee loses all their points, they can be disciplined. If they lose their points multiple times they can be fired.
In a statement to MTFP, BNSF spokesperson Lena Kent wrote that the new policy was implemented to “improve the consistency of crews being available for their shifts to run trains,” particularly during the ongoing supply-chain crisis, which has hobbled nearly every sector of the transportation industry. Railroad officials also noted that BNSF had not updated its attendance policy in more than 20 years and wanted to make it more consistent with the rest of the industry.
“We understand that change is hard but, as with every other railroad and service business, delivering for our customers requires employees to be available to work their assigned shifts,” Kent wrote.
But the labor unions, including the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen and SMART Transportation Division, which represent more than 17,000 BNSF employees, didn’t see it that way and immediately began polling members on whether or not to go on strike over the new policy.
“This draconian attendance policy has made a poor work environment even worse,” Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, told MTFP.
Before the unions could finish polling members on whether or not to strike, BNSF filed a lawsuit in federal court seeking a restraining order against any work stoppage. A federal judge in Texas ruled in favor of the railroad, thus precluding a strike. Railroad-labor relations are governed by the Railway Labor Act of 1926. It was the first federal law that guaranteed the right of workers to organize, but it also set a high bar for when a railroad union could strike, which could cripple the economy.
Regan said most of the big railroads in North America have “severe” attendance policies, but that BNSF’s new Hi-Viz policy is by far the worst, in his opinion. Because of it, many railroaders have quit. According to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen and SMART Transportation Division, more than 700 operating employees have resigned since Feb. 1, and some have said the number is even higher. But during a recent hearing in Washington, D.C., a BNSF executive called that figure “greatly exaggerated.” BNSF declined to offer its own figure to MTFP.
BNSF officials wrote that its operating employees receive three to four weeks vacation and more than 10 “Personal Leave Days,” which was increased by 25% at the beginning of the year. Since Hi-Viz was implemented, the railroad said it has seen more employees using vacation days.
“BNSF team members drive our success and we couldn’t deliver the nation’s goods without them,” Kent wrote. “We believe we can adapt together to meet today’s competitive freight environment.”
Wassam said he was already growing tired of the railroad lifestyle before the new attendance policy went into effect — especially since he has three young children at home and rarely gets to see them. Because of the solid benefits the industry provides, including a federally run retirement program separate from Social Security, railroaders often think twice about leaving, but Wassam said Hi-Viz pushed him over the line.
While Wassam no longer works for the railroad, he’s still frustrated by what he’s seeing because he has friends and family who still work in the industry. He’s not only worried about the impacts the new policy will have on railroaders’ personal lives, but also on safety, particularly if employees feel they have to go to work fatigued because they fear losing points. He also worried that the railroad might use its shrinking employee numbers as an excuse to implement one-person crews, a practice that labor groups have fought vigorously in recent years. Presently, most freight trains are staffed with two people, but there is no law preventing there being only one employee on a train.
BNSF’s labor strife comes at a precarious time for America’s freight railroads. In recent months, some of the largest railroads in America, including BNSF, have struggled to deliver reliable service to customers, with trains running slower and freight cars sitting longer in rail yards waiting for deliveries. Service has gotten so bad that the federal regulator that oversees the industry called executives from four of the country’s largest railroads to a hearing last week in Washington, D.C., to explain themselves. BNSF’s Vice President of Transportation Matt Garland admitted during the hearing that his company’s “service has not met our own expectations,” but said that it was quickly hiring more workers and taking old locomotives out of storage to meet demand.
Executives blamed the lingering impacts of the pandemic, the ongoing supply-chain crisis and labor shortages for its woes. But rail customers and union officials accused the railroads of trying to do more with less by making drastic cuts to boost profits and please their shareholders. That last claim is bolstered by numbers: According to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, America’s largest freight railroads have reduced their workforce by a combined 45,000 people, or 29%, in the last six years.
In 2021, BNSF posted record-breaking profits, despite moving fewer carloads of freight than it had before the pandemic.
Regan, the president of the AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department, said the railroad’s decision to implement a strict new attendance policy while making billions of dollars in profit has resulted in a demoralized workforce. Because of that, he’s not surprised that some employees are calling it quits.
Wassam said he loved working for the railroad — “Driving a train is every little kid’s dream, and I got to do that for eight years” — but that he has no regrets about leaving. He recently became an electrician apprentice and said he’s loving every minute of it, particularly because he can be home with his family every night.
“In the weeks since I left the railroad, I’ve been to my kids’ dance competitions, Jiu Jitsu competitions and wrestling matches,” he said. “It’s been so great to be able to tell my kids, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there.’”