January 18, 2007

SPRINGFIELD (Jan. 18)—UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo said the union was disappointed but not totally surprised by today’s U.S. District Court decision that the Illinois Railroad Employees Medical Treatment Act is preempted by federal law.

The Court’s Central Division in Springfield issued a decision that enjoined the Illinois Commerce Commission from enforcing the 2005 state law on grounds that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has issued similar regulations under enforcement powers by the Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA) of 1970.

“We all know that the Federal Courts are ultra-conservative these days,” Szabo said. “In its suit against the State of Illinois the rail industry was able to muddy the waters enough to blur the lines between FRA’s accident-reporting requirements and the state’s attempt to ensure the intergrity of medical treatment. While it is disappointing that rail workers are treated so inhumanely, we were not really surprised by this ruling, and we do not believe it will materially retard the union’s efforts to protect injured railroad workers from supervisors who try to interfere with, delay or withhold prompt medical treatment.”

While the Court’s ruling deprives the State of Illinois of the right to enforce strict standards, it appears to strengthen the FRA’s ability to do so.

“Our union originally campaigned for a separate law in Illinois because the FRA was often lax in its interpretation of it’s anti-harassment code,” he said. “The ruling appears to futher clarify FRA’s powers in this regard and can actually be a tool for more stringent enforcement. We expect to be working with the FRA to make sure it steps up its enforcement activity accordingly.”

The Railroad Employees Medical Treatment Act was passed overwhelmingly by the Illinois General Assembly May 28, 2005, following a campaign in which the UTU showed that railroad supervisors in Illinois had been engaging in persistent attempts to delay, deny or interfer with appropriate medical care for injured workers and FRA had failed to act.

Szabo said ideally the protection of railroad employees against carrier interference with medical treatment “should be national” and that the UTU sought a state law only because federal enforcement had been inadequate.

“Really it’s an interstate issue because railroad lines cross state lines, and the court saw it that way,” he said. “But the important thing is we were able to share with the Illinois General Assembly in a public arena just what goes on every day in the railroad industry. They understood and responded accordingly. It proved that the “little guy” does have power when we all work together.

“The muscle we flexed in getting the Employees Medical Treatment Act passed exerted a chilling effect on overzealous managers, and reports of interference with treatment — while not completely eliminated — have dropped off significantly in Illinois,” Szabo said. “Now we need to ensure that ‘old habits’ don’t return.”

Szabo said employee vigilance will be essential to making sure the FRA gets serious about enforcing the powers clarified by the Federal Court ruling.

“The union’s admonition to employees remains the same as before,” he said: “If you are injured on the job make sure you make a clear request for immediate medical attention. Make the request clearly on the radio or try to have a witness.

“At the doctor’s office make certain that you are given complete privacy as you are being treated and that all treatment decisions are made solely betwween you and the doctor. Your supervisor may not be involved in any conversations between you and your doctor and may not attempt to influence the doctor in any way. Frankly, you should be suspicious and make a note if your supervisor has any conversation at all with the doctor or nurse.”

Szabo also said that an injured employee should see his own treating physician in cases where he has been treated first by the company doctor. “There have been way too many cases of the company doctor failing to act in the injured party’s best interest — they are only interested in keeping their business relationship with the carrier,” he said. “See your own personal physician and agree to the treatment plan that you and your doctor feel is best.”

And if a supervisor attempts to delay, deny or interfere with an employee’s medical treatment in any way, the employee should make a record of everything that supervisor does so it can be reported to the union,” Szabo advised. He said time, date, place and the name and title of the supervisor are essential.

“If you are not injured but are present when a fellow worker is injured, observe the way his case is handled by management,” Szabo advised. “If any attempt is made to delay or interfere with a fellow worker’s treatment, write down as much as you can and report it to the UTU Illinois Legislative Board in Chicago.”

Szabo warned that employees should not attempt to intercede or argue with a supervisor’s handling of an injured employee’s treatment.

“Follow orders, politely request that your rights be upheld, but do as you are told and record what you have witnessed and forward it to me immediately,” he said. “I’ll do the rest.

“The battle is not lost or over,” he said. “It is just a new inning.”