January 31, 2007

WASHINGTON (Jan. 31)—In a quick response to a U.S. District Court finding that Illinois cannot enforce its law prohibiting railroads from delaying, denying or interfering with their employees’ medical treatment, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Railroads today heard testimony from rail labor asking for federal legislation that would accomplish the same purpose.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) called the hearing with the intent of strengthening and updating the 1971 Federal Rail Safety Act. Because FRA’s authority for enforcement rests in the Act, the Transportation Trades Department (TTD) of the AFL-CIO urged the Subcommittee to update the Act with strong penalties for railroads that interfere with the medical treatment of injured workers.

“Rail workers and their unions continue to face employer harassment and intimidation when reporting accidents, injuries and other safety concerns,” TTD President Edward Wytkind told the Subcommittee. Wytkind said a 2001 Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) report found that “harassment and intimidation were commonplace and were used to pressure employees to not report an injury, to cut corners and to work faster.”

“What Ed reported to the Subcommittee today is well known to rail workers in Illinois,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “The railroad industry’s repeated efforts to interfere with medical treatment of injured employees is the reason the UTU worked so hard to secure passage of the Railroad Employees Medical Treatment Act in the Illinois General Assembly.”

That state law, passed in 2005, was struck down January 18 when the U.S. District Court in Springfield ruled that the matter was “substantially subsumed” by the Federal Rail Safety Act and was a matter for Federal jurisdiction.

“So we said, ‘Sounds fine to us,’” Szabo said. “Essentially, the court was saying, ‘you have to make a federal case out of it.’

“So we did,” Szabo said. “The timing was perfect. The House Rail Subcommittee already was planning hearings, so I flew to Washington to meet with UTU National Legislative Director James Brunkenhoefer, and he coordinated efforts with TTD. Today, less than two weeks after the Court ruling, Ed Wytkind is telling our story to a receptive Congress and blazing the trail toward new federal legislation that will do everything the Illinois legislation did—but in all 49 states that have railroads.”

Wytkind told the Subcommittee the real problem behind the medical-treatment interference issue was the railroad industry’s relentless drive to reduce all expenses and enhance injury statistics.

“It is clear this is an industry where zeal for a robust bottom line clouds the judgment of those in a position to advance safety reforms,” Wytkind said.

Later, under questioning by Subcommittee members, Wytkind said the intensity of the industry’s resistance to medical-treatment reform can be gauged by its 2006 surprise lawsuit in which it repudiated a commitment it had made to the Illinois General Assembly.

“Let me end with a story in Illinois,” Wytkind told the panel. “Rail employees and their unions in the state attempted in 2005 to pass responsible state legislation dealing with a health-and-safety problem having to do with rail employees not receiving prompt medical attention for injuries. The bill enjoyed strong bipartisan support and was passed in the Illinois House.

“The railroads opposed the bill and approached state senators and the unions about negotiating a compromise. A deal was struck, the Illinois State Senate passed a compromise bill which addressed industry objections – and it was understood by the state lawmakers that the railroads would not oppose the bill.

“Well, before that train left the station, the railroads reneged on the deal and filed suit in federal court against the State of Illinois to overturn the very legislation they negotiated and agreed to,” Wytkind said. “In a Resolution the Illinois Senate unanimously condemned the railroads’ unsavory strategy, calling it a ‘breach of faith.’ One senator was quoted on the Senate floor saying he felt ‘sandbagged.’”

Wytkind noted that in addition to withholding medical treatment and interfering with their employees’ doctor-patient relationships, railroads continue to ignore the dangers of worker fatigue, are failing to provide their thousands of new hires with adequate training and are dragging their feet about installing signaling systems on “dark territory” swamped with new volumes of traffic the trackage was never designed to handle. He said any updating of the Federal Railroad Safety Program should address all of these issues. He also said the program needs “whistleblower” language to protect employees who report dangerous working conditions and managerial practices to federal safety authorities.

“We have to move through the process, with several more Committee Hearings scheduled over the next month,” Szabo said. “But we are confident when Chairman [James] Oberstar moves to update the Federal Railroad Safety Act it will contain the enforcement tools our members require for the protection of their health, their safety and their human dignity.

“The railroads in Illinois argued that our Rail Employee Medical Treatment Act should be a federal issue,” he said. “For the benefit of rail workers nationwide, we intend to oblige them. We had our day in court two weeks ago. Today we’re getting our hearing on Capitol Hill. Before this session of Congress ends we expect to pass federal legislation.”