Legislative Update January 2014

Two-Year Budget Bill Signed into Law

 

President Barack Obama signed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 on December 26, providing $63 billion in sequester relief over two years, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs. The bill also includes $85 billion in deficit reduction. Savings in the bill come from a new airport security tax and from an increase in fees paid by companies that offer pensions that are guaranteed by the federal government. Deficit reduction also comes from a controversial measure that would reduce cost-of-living increases for retired members of the military under age 62. Senators from both parties have indicated that they hope to undo these cuts in military pensions before they go into effect in 2015.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan stated that the bill offers proof that both parties can work together, putting aside their differences and finding common ground. But, after two years of seemingly endless confrontation and animosity reflecting the differing ideologies of the two sides, will this spirit of cooperation continue in the new year? Both parties are already gearing up for the next fiscal fight over the debt ceiling limit, which the Treasury says must be resolved by late February or early March. Despite the White House’s insistence that Obama will not negotiate over that issue, Ryan has vowed that the GOP will seek concessions before acquiescing. Other contentious issues that Congress faces as it returns to work on January 6 include the unemployment benefit extension and the living wage movement.

 

Placing Cameras in Cabs of Locomotives is Not the Answer!

Prompted by the 2008 tragic collision of a commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth, California, resulting in numerous casualties, and fueled by more recent incidents, including the derailment of a Metro North passenger train in New York early last month, as well as the derailments that occurred at the end of the month in Casselton, North Dakota, and Keithville, Louisiana, there have been a number of media stories about the need for inward-facing cameras in locomotives, as if that measure would somehow prevent such incidents. BLET National President Dennis Pierce responded, stating that cameras are not the answer. Cameras are an investigation tool, he said, not an accident prevention tool, and the installation of cameras on locomotives will provide nothing more than a false sense of security for the public and yet another distraction for the engineer inside the cab. He went on to explain that the real problem is that of fatigue and pointing a camera at a very tired locomotive engineer does nothing to alleviate that fatigue. He explained that there are steps that can be taken that will truly reduce the effect of fatigue on safety in the railroad industry and safeguard against those occasions where fatigue overwhelms an engineer while operating a moving locomotive.

He has called on all railroads that are currently suspending and/or terminating engineers for taking time off due to fatigue because they cannot with certainty be rested for an unknown on-duty time to stop this counter intuitive behavior immediately. Pressuring engineers to work tired through threat of the loss of their jobs is contributing to fatigue in the railroad industry and all but ensures that another fatigue-related accident will happen.

President Pierce stated that equally as important as addressing the attendance issue is the implementation of positive train control technology on the nation’s railroads and he again called on Congress, the FRA, and the railroad industry to ensure that this technology is implemented according to the deadline of December 31, 2015, as mandated by Congress.

 

BLET members to keep Health FSA plan for 2014

Many thanks to all of you who took the time in the last few months of 2013 to sign on to participate in the Health Flexible Spending Account (FSA) plan offered to most locomotive engineers governed by the January 5, 2012 BLET National Agreement. As a result of the increased level of participation in this money-saving plan, the plan will continue in effect for the calendar year 2014. Following the conclusion of the Open Enrollment for 2014, 8.45% of eligible BLET members had enrolled in the program, exceeding the minimum requirement of 5% participation required to keep the plan active in 2014. In 2015 and future plan years, participation levels must maintain a minimum of 7.5%.

Please note that the national Health FSA is distinct and separate from the on-property BNSF Health FSA plan and that the participation rates for 2014 and beyond do not apply to BNSF engineers.

Any members who have questions regarding the FSA should call United Healthcare at (888) 298-9754 or visit Your Track to Health.

 

Open enrollment for BLET Short Term Disability Plan; Important changes and enhancements to Plan B coverage

Open Enrollment for 2014 under the BLET’s Short Term Disability insurance plan began on January 1, 2014, and will run through February 28, 2014. If you are a locomotive engineer working on a railroad that participated in the Wage/Rules portion of the National Agreement dated December 16, 2003 (as an example; BNSF, NS, and Amtrak did not participate in this plan so this information does not apply to engineers working on these properties), your coverage under Part A of the BLET Short Term Disability Plan will automatically continue. Important changes and enhancements have been made to the Plan B coverage. If you currently do not participate in Part B coverage, you may elect coverage during this enrollment period. If you currently participate and wish to opt out of Part B coverage, then you can also do so during this enrollment period.

For a full explanation of Part A and Part B coverage, please see the entire BLET newsflash dated January 2, 2014, at:

http://www.ble-t.org/pr/news/newsflash.asp?id=5516

Health Care Coverage Extended to Legally Married Same-sex Spouses

Effective January 1, 2014, the Railroad Employees National Health and Welfare Plan (GA-23000), the Railroad Employees National Dental Plan (GP-12000), the Railroad Employees National Vision Plan, and the Railroad Employees National Early Retirement Major Medical Benefit Plan (GA-46000) will provide dependent coverage for legally married same-sex spouses of eligible employees. Although the benefit is not required by law or under current collective bargaining agreements, Rail Labor and Rail Management reached an agreement to extend dependent coverage to same sex spouses of eligible employees who are legally married. The agreement reached is in light of recent changes allowing same-sex couples to access the same federal tax benefits provided to other married couples. Employees will receive additional details concerning this coverage in the weeks ahead.