February 18, 2005

SPRINGFIELD (Feb. 18)—The UTU’s Illinois Legislative Board launched its most forceful effort yet on the floor of the General Assembly as House members introduced three new bills designed to make the railroad workplace safer.

Based upon the problems documented by members throughout the state, the 2005 UTU package would protect rail employees from overzealous supervisors who delay, deny or interfere with medical treatment for workplace injuries, and would assure employees of up to $250,000 worth of uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage if they are injured while riding in a commercial crew van.

A third bill would restrict a carrier from receiving any project funds or grants from the state of Illinois while under citation by the Commerce Commission for an unresolved workplace-safety or sanitary citation.

“I would call this a very aggressive package of employee-protection legislation, and we have been aggressive because our members need protection,” said Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “Too many railroads in this state have not been respectful of employee rights or needs or the UTU’s requests for reasonable resolution. When we can’t get a carrier to do the right thing, it becomes time to address the problem with an appropriate legislative agenda.”

Szabo said the first bill, H.B. 2449, would make it unlawful for any railroad or any of its employees to delay, deny or interfere in any way with a railroad’s employee’s effort to obtain first aid or medical treatment following a workplace accident.

“Interference with medical treatment is—no pun intended—the single biggest ‘sore point’ in our members’ relationships with the carriers,” Szabo said. “Way too often we have seen excessive delays or employees being told that they will be fired if they report an injury or seek medical attention.

“Members suffering the pain and shock of an accident have been told to ‘rest a while and see if it clears up’,” Szabo said. “They have been steered away from the nearest medical facility to an ‘approved’ company physician. Too often physicians have received phone calls and visits from railroad officials asking them to reduce the severity of a diagnosis or prescribe a less effective drug in order to manipulate their federal accident statistics.

“We’ve reached a crisis point where too many carriers are more concerned with doctoring the numbers than in ensuring the patients are properly doctored and the doctor-patient relationship protected,” Szabo said. “This kind of conduct is unconscionable.”

H.B. 2449 would make carriers liable for a fine of up to $10,000 for each such offense.

“We’re particularly proud that this legislation was introduced today by the only UTU member in the General Assembly, State Rep. Eddie Washington [D-North Chicago],” Szabo said.

A second bill, H.B. 2510, introduced by House Transportation Comm. Chairman Jay Hoffman (D-Collinsville), provides that a contract carrier that operates crew vans for railroad-employee travel must show proof that it carries at least $250,000 in uninsured and underinsured-motorist insurance coverage on each passenger before it can be licensed by the state.

“The UTU has done a good deal in the past four years to make sure that contract-carrier vans are state inspected and drivers’ hours regulated, but gaps remain in the insurance coverage provided to protect the crew members who have no choice but to ride in these vehicles,” Szabo said. “Chairman Hoffman’s bill is expected to close that gap.”

Another measure introduced by Hoffman, H.B. 2473, would provide railroads with an additional inducement to conform to statutory safe-workplace rules—withholding of state funds from carriers that dawdle about coming into compliance.

“The state has made taxpayers’ money available for several kinds of improvements that railroads need, including signal systems, grade-crossing protection and capacity enhancements, and there’s likely to be more in the future,” Szabo said.

“But H.B. 2473 would enable the state to withhold a project payment if it were shown that a carrier was resisting or dragging its feet on coming into compliance with a Commerce Commission rule,” he said.

“The carriers want state assistance for publicly funded improvements – and we want to be supportive of those improvements,” Szabo said.

“But, when it comes time to respect the safety codes of the Illinois Commerce Commission, a few carriers take months – or even years – to respond to notices served by state inspectors,” Szabo said. “They require inspection after inspection and force the case before an Administrative Law Judge, rather than just do the right thing and comply.

“All this consumes the resources of the state,” he said. “With HB 2473, carriers that respect the rules of the Illinois Commerce Commission will have nothing to fear. Those carriers who don’t will no longer be able to have their cake and eat it too.”