Legislative Update April 2013

Senate Approves First Budget in Four Years

Just days before the April 1 deadline, the Senate finally approved its first budget in four years in the pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, March 23, by a very small margin of 50-49. The $3.7 trillion budget includes almost $1 trillion in tax increases over the coming decade but shelters domestic programs targeted for cuts by House Republicans. All Republicans voted against it, as well as four Democrats who are facing tough re-elections. The budget would shrink annual federal shortfalls over the next decade to nearly $400 billion, raise unspecified taxes by $975 billion, and cull modest savings from domestic programs. This budget is in strong contrast to the one passed in the House and has little chance of becoming law in its current form.

Another Whistleblower Case

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has ordered the Union Pacific Railroad to immediately reinstate an employee who was terminated in violation of the Federal Railroad Safety Act for reporting a work-related injury. The company will pay more than $350,000 in back wages with interest, compensatory and punitive damages. An OSHA investigation upheld the employee’s allegation that the railroad terminated his employment in retaliation for reporting a work-related injury. The employee had more than 30 years of service and twice had received the railroad’s World Class Employee Award. It was not until after the employee reported his work-related injury in December 2010 that the railroad charged him with misusing his company vehicle. OSHA’s investigation found that this charge was used as a pretext to retaliate against the employee for reporting his injury, and that the employee’s explanations as to his use of the company vehicle were reasonable and consistent with his job duties.

Union Pacific was ordered to remove disciplinary information from the employee’s personnel record and to provide whistle-blower rights information to its employees. Either party in the case can file an appeal with the department’s Office of Administrative Law Judges.

More than 60 percent of the complaints filed with OSHA under the provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act involve an allegation that a railroad worker has been retaliated against for reporting an on-the-job injury.

Sequester Impacts Railroad Unemployment & Sickness Benefits

As a result of recently implemented budget cuts, beginning in March 2013, unemployment insurance benefits payable under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA) have been reduced by 9.2%, thereby reducing the maximum daily benefit rate from $66.00 to just under $60.00. As a result, the total maximum amount payable in a 2-week period covering 10 days of unemployment will drop from $660.00 to $599.28.

Certain railroad sickness benefits are reduced for regular tier I railroad retirement taxes of 7.65 percent. Applying the additional 9.2 percent reduction to these benefits will result in a daily benefit rate of $55.34, and a maximum two-week payment of $553.44.
The maximum daily benefit rate will increase to $68.00 on July 1, 2013. For days of unemployment and sickness after that date, the reduction will result in a maximum daily benefit rate of $61.74 and a maximum two-week payout of $617.44. The maximum daily benefit rate for sickness benefits subject to tier I payroll taxes will be $57.02, with a maximum two-week total of $570.21.

The total sequestration is actually spread out over nine years. This initial reduction will remain in effect through September 30, 2013. The initial reduction amount is based upon projected claims and benefits and may be adjusted as needed. Congress will subsequently determine the amount of any reductions in future years. In addition, any appropriations subsequently enacted in fiscal year 2013 could also result in changes to the reduction amount.

The law exempts social security benefits, as well as railroad retirement, survivor, and disability benefits paid by the RRB, from sequestration. In fiscal year 2012, the RRB paid $11.3 billion in retirement and survivor benefits to about 573,000 beneficiaries, and net unemployment-sickness benefits of $89 million to about 26,000 claimants.

On March 8, 2013, the Railroad Retirement Board issued the following statement:
“This sequestration is the result of the failure of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to propose, and Congress to enact, legislation reducing the deficit, as required by the BCA. Under the BCA, the cuts were triggered to take effect beginning January 1, 2013, if the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction did not agree to a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction package by November 23, 2011. The cuts were initially delayed but will now take effect March 1, 2013 . . . .”

BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce sharply criticized the forced cut in benefits: “Congress had a year and a half to get its act together and pass a deficit-reduction package that balances revenue increases and spending cuts,” Pierce said. “Shame on those who stood in the way of a resolution that would have prevented harm to the most vulnerable of Americans.”

BLET members who have questions regarding the reduction or sequestration of RUIA benefits should contact the Railroad Retirement Board’s Quality Reporting Service Center at (312) 751-4992.

National Train Day – May 11, 2013

The celebration of the Sixth National Train Day is scheduled for Saturday, May 11, 2013. This annual event held each May on the Saturday closest to May 10 is a method to spread information to the general public about the advantages of rail travel and the history of trains in the United States. Events are held at Amtrak stations as well as railroad museums across the country and often have passenger cars and model railroad layouts on display. To find out more about National Train Day and look for an event in your area, go to: http://www.nationaltrainday.com/s/.

For those of you who will be in Detroit, Michigan, for the celebration of the BLET 150th Anniversary Celebration on May 8, you may want to hang around to celebrate National Train Day at the Amtrak Station in downtown Detroit, located at 11 W. Baltimore Ave (at the intersection of Baltimore Ave. & Woodward Ave.) from 7 a.m. – 11 a.m. The Amtrak station is approximately 3-1/2 miles from the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel where the 150th Anniversary Celebration is being held. There is also a celebration planned with the AM 910 Radio Disney Road Crew at The Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn from Noon to 2pm. Look for the Road Crew outside the main gates of the village across from the ticket booth and find out how you and your family could win four round trip tickets from Dearborn to Chicago, courtesy of AMTRAK.