A few weeks later, on June 16, Hiles suffered a heart attack and died in the engine room of a BNSF freight train somewhere between Kansas City, Mo., and Fort Madison, Iowa — a tragedy that helped bring the work to a standstill. that last week almost shut down the US economy.
Railroad attendance policies were at the heart of the dramatic showdown between the nation’s largest railroad companies and railroad workers, who did not strike after President Biden and other top administration officials brokered a last-minute deal early Thursday. The deal includes a 24 percent pay increase by 2024 — the largest for rail workers in more than four decades — and new flexibility for workers to take time off when hospitalized or to attend routine doctor appointments without penalty.
But the dissatisfaction among railway workers is still under scrutiny. They say few details have been made available about the deal, which leaves the points-based attendance policy in place for other types of emergencies. And some say they doubt the deal will address their basic concerns about quality of life amid painful labor shortages and the continued spread of Covid-19.
“This policy is pretty cruel. Everyone’s worried about points,” said Joel Dixon, a BNSF conductor and Hiles’ best friend for more than two decades. “It’s always a question of whether Aaron would still be around if he took that doctor’s appointment . He and I talked every day. We were brothers.”
BNSF would not discuss the details of Hile’s death, but pointed out that employees receive generous vacation packages and can take time off when needed without fear of retaliation. The company said it is committed to working with employees when “extenuating circumstances” arise, but that the points-based policy is necessary to keep trains running during a challenging work situation.
Biden reaches deal on rail strike, but worker discontent emerges
Still, the reaction on social media has been furious since union leaders walked away with a deal guaranteeing rail workers just one extra paid day off. Some workers said they weren’t sure how negotiators arrived at those guidelines, in their closed-door tug of war over proposals for talks over about 20 hours at Labor Department offices.
More specific contract language will be distributed to workers in the coming weeks and explained in educational sessions intended to persuade workers to ratify the agreements, union leaders say.
The stakes are high. Unless union leaders persuade 115,000 workers across 12 unions to vote to ratify contracts, a nationwide rail strike remains possible — and could snarl large parts of the nation’s supply chain just before the midterm elections.
Points-based attendance policies date to 2020, when Union Pacific, one of the nation’s largest carriers, rolled out new rules to ensure staffing during the pandemic. According to these guidelines, employees are awarded a certain number of points, which are deducted when they miss a request to come to work or unexpectedly report from work. If their score falls too low, penalties can apply up to and including termination.
BNSF adopted its own points-based attendance policy in February 2022. Unions called BNSF’s policy “the worst and most extreme attendance policy ever adopted by any railroad.”
BNSF said the policy was implemented to “encourage consistent and reliable attendance” amid increased demand for smooth service. Employees can earn points by agreeing to be on call for 14 consecutive days.
Railway companies have had high turnover and a shortage of labor in the last two years. Rail transport has been reduced by 12,500 jobs since the pandemic began, according to the Ministry of Labour.
A shortage of workers is fueling America’s biggest labor crisis
Under those guidelines, union leaders say workers have lost points or been penalized for calling in sick with Covid, having a heart attack and getting into a serious car accident. Another employee lost points after losing her job when her mother died.
BNSF spokesman Benjamin Wilemon denied those claims, saying the system can automatically award points for absences, but that employees can explain the situation to their supervisor and get the points returned.
Wilemon said BNSF’s attendance policy is designed to allow “employees to take time off when necessary” and that “employees are encouraged to use their points without fear of retaliation.” He noted that points are available for doctor visits and that employees have at least three weeks of vacation and 10 personal days available to them.
“It is unfortunate that someone would use the death of Mr. Hiles to advance their agenda while ignoring the facts of this tragic situation,” Wilemon said. “Out of respect for his family, BNSF will not discuss the circumstances surrounding his passing.”
Wilemon also noted that workers received a 25 percent increase in personal days this year, and that employees cannot work more than six days in a row under federal law.
Union leaders say the federal statutory allowance is misleading, because time spent stranded in a hotel, after working a long shift, waiting to be called back to work does not count as a work day.
Just missing a phone call from BNSF to get to work results in a 15-point deduction, BNSF confirmed. Many conductors and engineers live in rural parts of the country with limited cell service. Once called, workers have 90 minutes to two hours to report to work, regardless of the time of day and how far they live from the station. Failure to report to work on weekends, holidays and other high-impact days, such as Super Bowl Sunday and Mother’s Day, result in the largest deductions. Although employees can win back points by being available to work 14 days in a row.
More than 700 BNSF employees have quit their jobs since the policy was rolled out in February, union representatives say, exacerbating workloads for those who remain.
BNSF’s Wilemon said the company has seen more workers take scheduled vacation days since launching its attendance-based policy. He said workers take an average of 24 hours off between each shift, and that number has increased since the attendance policy began. He added that the policy has resulted in fewer attendance-based disciplinary actions.
BNSF employees say the points-based attendance system has worsened a difficult profession that already weighs on their mental and physical health. Many railroad workers suffer from chronic health conditions, such as obesity and sleep apnea, according to union representatives. Workers regularly stay in motels for days at a time, unsure when they will be able to return home, exacerbating tensions in already strained marriages and relationships with their children.
Jordan Boone, 41, a BNSF conductor in Galesburg, Ill., has five children at home. Since the policy took effect in February, Boone said, he misses most sports games, birthdays, concerts and vacations. If he is lucky, he can squeeze in a few hours with his family a week.
“BNSF came up with this policy because of all the cuts they’ve made, and they’re trying to do everything they can to make us pick up the slack. They haven’t hired enough,” Boone said. “The time away from family has huge impact on our mental health. I know people who have missed doctor appointments for months and months because of this policy.”
Aaron Hiles signed up for a railroad job at BNSF in Galesburg after serving in the Marines in Desert Storm and Somalia. The job was prestigious, but life on the railway was tough. Hiles spent weeks away from home, living out of motels, working through Christmas and other holidays, and collecting coins and reading about current events to pass the time.
But things took a turn for the worse when BNSF adopted its updated points policy in February, Hile’s parents said. They noted that Aaron looked “tired and really tired.”
“When he told us about the mandate, I said, ‘Somebody’s going to have a heart attack and die,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, they will,'” recalls Donna Hiles, his mother.
On the day Hiles died, two BNSF representatives traveled to his home in Lee Summit, Mo., to inform his wife. She called his parents to tell them their son had passed away.
BNSF paid for Hile’s funeral expenses, but his parents never heard from them directly.
“It’s devastating,” Donna Hiles said. “He was larger than life. He was kind-hearted. I challenge you to find a person who disliked him. He had hundreds of friends.”