WASHINGTON, DC – In an effort to support 100,000 rail workers and avert a potentially crippling national freight rail shutdown as early as December 9, Congress is poised to take up legislation to prevent major disruptions to supply chains and the economy.

U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) says that Congress should pass language adding seven days of paid sick leave for rail workers to the final agreement.  

The current impasse began in 2019.  After two years of bargaining, this fall, with help from the Biden Administration, a tentative contract agreement was struck between freight rail operators and their unions that addressed a variety of issues, but did not include any specific paid sick leave for workers.  Rail unions pushed for 15 days while employers offered zero change.  After workers voted to reject the agreement, it set up the potential for a nationwide rail strike.

Under the Railway Labor Act, Congress has the authority to intervene in rail labor disputes, a power it has exercised more than 16 times since the law was enacted in 1926.

“Every worker deserves paid sick leave.  Period.  It’s good for their health, public health, and the economy.  Freight rail operators need to get on board with paid sick leave now or it may likely cost them more in the long run,” said Senator Reed, a cosponsor of the Healthy Families Act, which would provide employees the opportunity to earn a minimum of seven paid sick days (56 hours) per year to care for themselves or their families.

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires eligible employers to provide certain workers unpaid family leave; however, unlike nearly all other industrialized nations, the U.S. does not have national standards on paid family or sick leave, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which notes that Rhode Island is a national leader when it comes to paid family sick leave.

Fortune Magazine notes that in Rhode Island: “Companies with more than 18 employees must give their workers paid sick leave. Full-time, temporary, and part-time employees can take up to 40 hours of sick leave to attend to their family’s health or their own ailments. You can accrue one hour of paid sick leave for every 35 hours worked. Earned hours can be used after 90 days of employment if you’re full-time, 180 days if you’re a temporary worker, and 150 days if you’re a seasonal employee. 

“After three days of consecutive paid sick leave, your company can request a doctor’s note. Employees that work in a company with fewer than 18 workers cannot be fired for taking sick leave, although their sick leave doesn’t need to be compensated. Interns, independent contractors, work-study participants, certain nurse practitioners, and state workers are not included in this law.”

The U.S. House of Representatives must first pass legislation adding the paid sick leave to the final agreement.  If lawmakers in both chambers pass the agreement and it is signed into law by the President, it would apply to all 12 rail unions for the next two years, when the next collective bargaining round could begin.