Legislative Update March 2016

By Kathleen Bisbikis, National 2nd Vice President, National Legislative Rep, BLET Auxiliary

Below are some of the most recent news items that affect all of us. Please feel free to share these with your local auxiliary. If you have information you would like to share with me for future updates, please send it to me at bletauxilliarylr@gmail.com.

Colorado Two Person Crew Bill HB16-1136 Update

On March 4, 2016, in Denver Colorado, HB16-1136 the Two Person Crew Bill passed 34-31 in the House Transportation and Energy Committee and is now on its way to the Senate Transportation Committee to be heard on March 23, 2016. Colorado still needs support and we encourage all Colorado residents to call and e-mail their senators asking them to support this important safety bill.

Maryland HB 92 Two Person Crew Bill

Congratulations to members in Maryland who saw victory on March 14, 2016, when HB 92, passed in the Senate with a vote of 32-14. The bill now moves to the House. This bill passed the same day the FRA proposed their two-person crew minimum on the federal level.

Republican Sen. Stephen Hershey says, “the action at the federal level makes the Maryland measure unnecessary.” He asked to delay the vote to allow more time to see what the proposed federal rules look like. But Sen. Brian Feldman, a Democrat, says “it’s unclear when the federal government may enact the rules or how they could be changed. Feldman says Maryland shouldn’t play public-safety Russian roulette waiting on the federal government.”

FRA Proposes Two Person Crew Minimum

On March 14, 2016, the Federal Railroad Administration issued a notice of proposed rulemaking establishing a minimum requirement of two crewmembers for all railroad operations. The exception would be in operations where the FRA does not believe a crew of less than two people would pose a significant safety risk to the public, the railroad employees, and the environment.

This FRA proposal on the federal level could be a huge step forward for ensuring safety for train crews as well as the communities through which they travel.

The proposed rule is currently open to a 60-day comment period for people to voice concerns, changes, or additions they would like to see added to the rule.

Amtrak helps the people of Flint Michigan

An Amtrak train filled with over 30,000 bottles of water rolled into Flint, Michigan to help the residents there who are in need of clean drinking water. The Amtrak employees in stations from New York, Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, and several other locations, all donated pallets of water as part of the Amtrak Cares Initiative.

The Mayor of Flint, Karen Weaver, expressed her thanks to Amtrak, stating: “It’s too great to have so many people and organizations, like Amtrak, supporting the city of Flint, the donations keep coming and we are very thankful. While we look forward to the day that we can feel comfortable using the water coming from our taps, we’re just not there yet. So we appreciate those who continue to donate bottled water and filters. We appreciate the generosity and support.”

Operation Lifesaver 2015 sees drop in crossing collisions

In a recent report by Operation Lifesaver, CEO and President Bonnie Murphy reported the number of vehicle train crossing collisions declined in 2015 by 7.6 percent, from 2,280 to 2,096 in 2013. Crossing related deaths also dropped 7.6 percent, from 244 to 264 in 2014. Unfortunately, deaths due to rail trespassing increased by 7.6 percent in 2015, to 512 from 475 in 2014.

The states reported to have the most crossing collisions in 2015 were California, Indiana, Georgia, Texas, and Illinois, while the states with the most trespasser causalities in 2015 were California, Florida, New York, Texas, and Illinois.

“Our ‘See Tracks? Think Train!’ campaign will continue this year, with a strategic focus on emphasizing that it’s illegal and extremely dangerous to use train tracks for recreational activities,” Murphy continued. “Operation Lifesaver, in partnership with freight railroads, passenger, and commuter rail systems, state and local law enforcement, and transportation agencies, will combine new educational materials with innovative outreach to key audiences, including new drivers, to encourage lifesaving behavior around tracks and trains,” she concluded.

Railroad Crossing Safety

The Federal Railroad Administration, in an effort to cut back on the number of railroad crossing fatalities, has asked state departments of transportation to verify that each railroad crossing warning system interconnected with traffic lights is working properly.

Since 2013, 96 people have died and another 419 were hurt at intersections where stoplights are interconnected with railroad equipment. According to the FRA, across the US there are close to 5000 interconnected railroad/traffic light crossings.

FRA Administrator Sarah E. Feinberg wrote, “I have made improving railroad crossing safety a top priority of mine because I know that we can and must do better, but the Federal Railroad Administration cannot solve this problem on its own. Unless we work closely with state and local officials, law enforcement, railroads and transportation officials, and other stakeholders, we will not have the impact we are striving for and we will not save as many lives. But working together, I know we can do more to prevent these incidents.”

2016 Elections

As we continue to prepare and educate ourselves for the upcoming election this November, or look for information about primary results, voting registration information most of us will turn to the internet for help. There are several good websites available where we can find the information we need. Thankfully, one of them has gathered the best of the best and put it all in one place. By simply going to https://www.headcount.org/issues-and-candidates/, you can learn about the candidates, the primary dates, if you’re registered to vote, important information about the political issues that concern you, and so much more. If you have any questions or concerns about the upcoming elections, give it a try.

Comparison of benefits under Railroad Retirement and Social Security

Employers and employees covered by the Railroad Retirement Act pay higher retirement taxes than those covered by the Social Security Act, so that railroad retirement benefits remain higher than social security benefits, especially for “career” employees who have 30 or more years of service.

The following questions and answers show the differences in railroad retirement and social security benefits payable at the close of the fiscal year ending September 30, 2015. They also show the differences in age requirements and payroll taxes under the two systems.

  1. How do the average monthly railroad retirement and social security benefits paid to retired employees and spouses compare?

The average age annuity being paid by the Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) at the end of fiscal year 2015 to career rail employees was $3,285 a month, and for all retired rail employees the average was $2,625. The average age retirement benefit being paid under social security was nearly $1,340 a month. Spouse benefits averaged $975 a month under railroad retirement compared to $665 under social security.

The Railroad Retirement Act also provides supplemental railroad retirement annuities of between $23 and $43 a month, which are payable to employees who retire directly from the rail industry with 25 or more years of service.

  1. Are the benefits awarded to recent retirees generally greater than the benefits payable to those who retired years ago?

Yes, because recent awards are based on higher average earnings. Age annuities awarded to career railroad employees retiring at the end of fiscal year 2015 averaged almost $3,805 a month while monthly benefits awarded to workers retiring at full retirement age under social security averaged nearly $1,840. If spouse benefits are added, the combined benefits for the employee and spouse would total $5,325 under railroad retirement coverage, compared to $2,755 under social security. Adding a supplemental annuity to the railroad family’s benefit increases average total benefits for current career rail retirees to nearly $5,360 a month.

  1. How much are the disability benefits currently awarded?

Disabled railroad workers retiring directly from the railroad industry at the end of fiscal year 2015 were awarded more than $2,820 a month on the average while awards for disabled workers under social security averaged over $1,270.

While both the Railroad Retirement and Social Security Acts provide benefits to workers who are totally disabled for any regular work, the Railroad Retirement Act also provides disability benefits specifically for employees who are disabled for work in their regular railroad occupation. Employees may be eligible for such an occupational disability annuity at age 60 with 10 years of service, or at any age with 20 years of service.

  1. Can railroaders receive benefits at earlier ages than workers under social security?

Railroad employees with 30 or more years of creditable service are eligible for regular annuities based on age and service the first full month they are age 60, and rail employees with less than 30 years of creditable service are eligible for regular annuities based on age and service the first full month they are age 62.

No early retirement reduction applies if a rail employee retires at age 60 or older with 30 years of service and his or her retirement is after 2001, or if the employee retired before 2002 at age 62 or older with 30 years of service.

Early retirement reductions are otherwise applied to annuities awarded before full retirement age, the age at which an employee can receive full benefits with no reduction for early retirement. This ranges from age 65 for those born before 1938 to age 67 for those born in 1960 or later, the same as under social security.

Under social security, a worker cannot begin receiving retirement benefits based on age until age 62, regardless of how long he or she worked, and social security retirement benefits are reduced for retirement prior to full retirement age regardless of years of coverage.

  1. Can the spouse of a railroader receive a benefit at an earlier age than the spouse of a worker under social security?

If a retired railroad employee with 30 or more years of service is age 60, the employee’s spouse is also eligible for an annuity the first full month the spouse is age 60.

Certain early retirement reductions are applied if the employee first became eligible for a 60/30 annuity July 1, 1984, or later, and retired at ages 60 or 61 before 2002. If the employee was awarded a disability annuity, has attained age 60 and has 30 years of service, the spouse can receive an unreduced annuity the first full month she or he is age 60, and regardless of whether the employee annuity began before or after 2002, as long as the spouse’s annuity beginning date is after 2001.

To qualify for a spouse’s benefit under social security, an applicant must be at least age 62, or any age if caring for a child who is entitled to receive benefits based on the applicant’s spouse’s record.

  1. Does social security offer any benefits that are not available under railroad retirement?

Social security does pay certain types of benefits that are not available under railroad retirement. For example, social security provides children’s benefits when an employee is disabled, retired or deceased. Under current law, the Railroad Retirement Act only provides children’s benefits if the employee is deceased.

However, the Railroad Retirement Act includes a special minimum guaranty provision which ensures that railroad families will not receive less in monthly benefits than they would have if railroad earnings were covered by social security rather than railroad retirement laws. This guaranty is intended to cover situations in which one or more members of a family would otherwise be eligible for a type of social security benefit that is not provided under the Railroad Retirement Act. Therefore, if a retired rail employee has children who would otherwise be eligible for a benefit under social security, the employee’s annuity can be increased to reflect what social security would pay the family.

  1. How much are monthly benefits for survivors under railroad retirement and social security?

Survivor benefits are generally higher if payable by the RRB rather than social security. At the end of fiscal year 2015, the average annuity being paid to all aged and disabled widow(er)s was $1,565 a month, compared to $1,250 under social security.

Benefits awarded by the RRB at the end of fiscal year 2015 to aged and disabled widow(er)s of railroaders averaged nearly $2,065 a month, compared to more than $1,195 under social security.

The annuities being paid at the end of fiscal year 2015 to widowed mothers/fathers averaged $1,835 a month and children’s annuities averaged $1,055, compared to $940 and $830 a month for widowed mothers/fathers and children, respectively, under social security.

Those awarded at the end of fiscal year 2015 averaged $1,670 a month for widowed mothers/fathers and $1,320 a month for children under railroad retirement, compared to $900 and $815 for widowed mothers/fathers and children, respectively, under social security.

  1. How do railroad retirement and social security lump-sum death benefit provisions differ?

Both the railroad retirement and social security systems provide a lump-sum death benefit. The railroad retirement lump-sum benefit is generally payable only if survivor annuities are not immediately due upon an employee’s death. The social security lump-sum benefit may be payable regardless of whether monthly benefits are also due. Both railroad retirement and social security provide a lump-sum benefit of $255. However, if a railroad employee completed 10 years of creditable railroad service before 1975, the average railroad retirement lump-sum benefit payable is $1,010. Also, if an employee had less than 10 years of service, but had at least 5 years of such service after 1995, he or she would have to have had an insured status under social security law (counting both railroad retirement and social security credits) in order for the $255 lump-sum benefit to be payable.

The social security lump sum is generally only payable to the widow(er) living with the employee at the time of death. Under railroad retirement, if the employee had 10 years of service before 1975, and was not survived by a living-with widow(er), the lump sum may be paid to the funeral home or the payer of the funeral expenses.

  1. How do railroad retirement and social security payroll taxes compare?

Railroad retirement payroll taxes, like railroad retirement benefits, are calculated on a two-tier basis. Rail employees and employers pay tier I taxes at the same rate as social security taxes, 7.65 percent, consisting of 6.20 percent for retirement on earnings up to $118,500 in 2016, and 1.45 percent for Medicare hospital insurance on all earnings. An additional 0.9 percent in Medicare taxes (2.35 percent in total) will be withheld from employees on earnings above $200,000.

In addition, rail employees and employers both pay tier II taxes which are used to finance railroad retirement benefit payments over and above social security levels. In 2016, the tier II tax rate on earnings up to $88,200 is 4.9 percent for employees and 13.1 percent for employers.

  1. How much are regular railroad retirement taxes for an employee earning $118,500 in 2016 compared to social security taxes?

The maximum amount of regular railroad retirement taxes that an employee earning $118,500 can pay in 2016 is $13,387.05, compared to $9,065.25 under social security. For railroad employers, the maximum annual regular retirement taxes on an employee earning $118,500 are $20,619.45, compared to $9,065.25 under social security. Employees earning over $118,500, and their employers, will pay more in retirement taxes than the above amounts because the Medicare hospital insurance tax is applied to all earnings.