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Local BNSF railroad workers say the new attendance policy is "a brutal policy"

An orange BNSF train engine sits on the tracks.
Terry Cantrell
/
Flickr via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
A BNSF locomotive in Afton, Oklahoma

The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF) is the largest Class I railroad in the country and is one of the two major freight railroads in Wyoming. It employs about 40,000 people and operates in 28 states on over 32,000 miles of track throughout its system.

The railroad has been one of the major economic drivers and employers for many of the Wyoming communities it passes through. Many owe their existence to it. In February, BNSF instituted an attendance policy known as Hi-Viz, which drew immediate criticism from employees and railroad unions. Kevin Knutson is a Gillette-based conductor and union leader who has worked for the railroad for over 40 years. He said the policy is very stringent.

"The attendance policy we had in the past, it would allow basically any person to take two weekend days and five weekdays per month off," he explained. "This policy, that they have now, cut that in half and in half. For instance, if I took off every other Sunday, no other days, I would be dismissed by the end of the year."

Each employee begins with 30 points for a career, Knutson said. Points are deducted for taking time off, especially at times that the railroad deems inconvenient. They can be added if employees work during periods that are more in demand. According to Knutson, taking time off for a doctor or dental appointment can cost an employee several points. If an employee exhausts all of their points, they can be terminated.

Knutson said he thinks the policy was implemented for several reasons. The pandemic caused people to be out sick more often causing labor shortages. A decline in coal traffic, fewer employees when rail traffic began to rise, and the desire to operate the railroad with fewer employees are all contributing factors, he says.

"It was a way to limit time off even though they didn't have a lot of people and they needed a lot of people," said Knutson. "The Hi-Viz was only partially responsible for them getting people back. They needed the people because they didn't have them."

BNSF, like other Class I railroads, operates around the clock, seven days a week, every day of the year, and in all weather conditions. It takes a lot of workers to keep the railroad running efficiently. The Hi-Viz policy impacts all employees, not just the ones that are operating trains. Protests have taken place in cities and towns on BNSF's system, including in Gillette.

"I can't give you a name of anyone that likes the policy whatsoever," Knutson said. "We have had a lot of people resign, quit working, and not just Gillette, across the system, because they went and found other jobs. It has brought morale down to an all-time low."

Courtney Goodson has been working as a BNSF conductor for about five years. Her husband is also a conductor. She's based in Gillette and works mostly on the route between Gillette, through the Powder River Basin to Guernsey, a crew change point. She said the policy isn't compassionate toward employees.

"We used to be able to take five weekdays, two weekend days a month off at our discretion and since the implementation of the Hi-Viz policy," she explained. "There's times I'll go a week without seeing my kids [for] more than 10 to 15 minutes just because it's such a brutal policy."

Goodson said the previous attendance policy wasn't nearly as strict and allowed more time for family events and time with her three children. She also said some of the claims that BNSF is making, especially in regard to working hours, time off, and leave, are misleading. BNSF said more than 50 percent of train crew employees work less than 40 hours on average.

"And as far as working 40 hours per trip, again what they're not telling you is, yes, we may be on a train for seven to eight hours going to our destination or back," she said. "However, just last week, I sat down in Guernsey for 27 hours in the hotel waiting to come home."

Some railroaders have said the policy incentivizes employees to work while sick or tired, something that Goodson can very much relate to.

"Almost every single day we go to work sick or tired because lineups are terrible," she admitted.

BNSF modified their policy on June 1. Goodson said that if employees work on the weekends, they can earn a single point to add to their total. Additionally, if employees fall into the top 10 percent of hours worked, they can earn points. But she added that incentive ultimately rewards those who take little, if any, time off and who don't need the points anyway. The railroad said they made no changes to how much time off an employee receives.

"I honestly hope that this isn't going to be the new normal because people are walking out faster than we can hire them on," said Goodson.

BNSF said that they're aggressively hiring but Goodson said the situation on the ground is that more employees are leaving than can be hired on. In Gillette, she said they have just two new hires compared to 18 that have left since the Hi-Viz policy was implemented. But apart from the policy, she said she loves her job.

"I would love to get whoever made this policy happen or said okay to it to come and join us for a week on how it is day to day," she urged.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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