Legislative Update November 2007

H.R. 2095, THE FEDERAL RAILROAD SAFETY IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2007

HR 2095, the Federal Railroad Safety Improvement Act of 2007 addressing fatigue, limbo time, and security matters was passed in the House of Representatives on October 17, by a vote of 377 for and 38 against. The final bill included an amendment that was offered by Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-CA, that prohibits rail safety inspections to be outsourced to Mexico. This amendment was adopted on a voice vote.

On October 25, rail union employees from Union Pacific and Norfolk Southern railroads testified on before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee about how their supervisors had discouraged them from reporting serious accidents or even delayed treatment for their injuries. The House hearing focused on harassment and intimidation of rail workers and House committee members were enlightened about how railroads coerce employees to not report on-the-job accidents and injuries. H.R. 2095 includes a provision that guarantees the right to prompt medical attention and makes it unlawful for a railroad to interfere in the relationship between an injured railroad worker and his or her doctor.

With any luck, the Senate version of this bill (S. 1889), which needs to be altered somewhat, especially with regard to hours of service, will be voted on soon. If this bill passes in the Senate, it will go to a Conference Committee for agreement between the House bill and the Senate bill. If the Senate doesn’t change their bill before the vote, we can hope that the final bill will change in favor of the house version through Conference Committee action.

 S.294, THE AMTRAK REAUTHORIZATION BILL

 On October 30, by a vote of 70-22, the United States Senate passed S.294, the Amtrak Reauthorization bill. This bill authorizes $11.4 billion over six years for Amtrak and also sets performance along with service standards. This legislation also expands the ability for future inter-city passenger rail routes and creates a state-federal capital program for further passenger rail development.

 An amendment offered by Senator Tom Coburn, R-OK, that would have eliminated food service on long distance trains was defeated. The bill now moves to the House of Representatives for further consideration.

On November 8, House and Senate Appropriations Committee negotiators agreed on a $105.6 billion spending bill providing funding for the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development for fiscal year 2008.  The conference agreement provides $1.375 billion for operating, capital and debt service subsidies for Amtrak, $5 million more than the Senate bill and $25 million less than the House bill.   The conference agreement also splits the difference between the House and Senate approaches to a new program created by the bill to give matching grants to states for intercity passenger rail infrastructure development – the conferees provide $75 million (the House program was $50 million and the Senate program was $100 million).   When combined, the conference agreement provides $1.45 billion for intercity passenger rail, which is $550 million over the President’s request and $156 million over the amount appropriated in 2007. The conference agreement also includes language that prohibits Amtrak from moving any of its jobs overseas.

Amtrak is proving that it is still a viable mode of transportation posting its fifth straight yearly increase in ridership, setting a record for usage this year since its inception in 1971.

 FAMILY MEDICAL LEAVE ACT (FMLA) STATUS

 On May 4, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected the request of rail carriers to rehear a case involving a March 2nd ruling blocking the carriers’ efforts to force employees to use their vacation and personal leave days for FMLA purposes, rather than at the times employees choose as provided in the collective bargaining agreement.  The Carriers petitioned the Supreme Court for review of the ruling, and the interested unions have until December 15th to file their oppositions to the petition.  It is likely that the Court will not decide whether to take the case until later in the Winter or early Spring, 2008, if at all.  If the Court grants the Carriers’ petition, the case will then have to be fully briefed on the merits and set for oral argument, which would probably not occur until the Supreme Court’s next term in October of 2008.

 The Carriers still maintain that even without the statute, the applicable collective bargaining agreements allow management to require employees to use the paid leave they have chosen for other purposes.  That dispute has to be resolved in Section 3 arbitration.  In the meantime, BLET members are advised to continue filing claims to document their FMLA disputes with management as we wait for the Supreme Court to act.

 RAILROAD RETIREMENT NEWS:

 Benefit Increase in 2008

 In January 2008, the average regular railroad retirement employee annuity will increase $35 a month, and the average of combined benefits for an employee and spouse will increase $47 a month.  For those aged widow(er)s eligible for an increase, the average annuity will increase $21 a month.  However, widow(er)s whose annuities are being paid under the Railroad Retirement and Survivors’ Improvement Act of 2001 will not receive annual cost-of-living adjustments until their annuity amount is exceeded by the amount that would have been paid under prior law, counting all interim cost-of-living increases otherwise payable.  Almost 30 percent of the widow(er)s on the Board’s rolls are being paid under the 2001 law.

 For more detailed information regarding benefit increases for 2008, please refer to the RRB Bulletin issued in October of 2007, or contact your Railroad Retirement Board office.

 Medicare Premium Increase in 2008

For most beneficiaries covered by Medicare, the standard Part B premium generally deducted from monthly benefits increases from $93.50 in 2007 to $96.40 in 2008.

Retiree earnings limits to rise in 2008

Railroad retirement annuitants subject to earnings restrictions can earn more in 2008 without having their benefits reduced, as a result of increases in earnings limits indexed to average national wage increases.

Earnings restrictions apply to those who have not attained full social security retirement age.  For employee and spouse annuitants, full retirement age ranges from age 65 for those born before 1938 to age 67 for those born in 1960 or later.  For survivor annuitants, full retirement age ranges from age 65 for those born before 1940 to age 67 for those born in 1962 or later.

For full information regarding earning restrictions and increased limits, please see the Railroad Retirement Board Bulletin from October 2007, or call your Railroad Retirement office.