November 2014 Legislative Update

LEGISLATIVE UPDATE NOVEMBER 2014

By Kathleen Bisbikis, National Second Vice President, National Legislative Representative, BLET Auxiliary

It is a great honor that I have been elected by the delegates to the 2014 BLET Auxiliary National Convention to serve as your 2nd Vice President and National Legislative Representative. Sister Sereena Hogan has moved to the position of our National Auxiliary President and it’s her shoes that I attempt to try and fill over these next four years. I hope that with her guidance and help, and my desire to serve and enthusiasm to learn, I can continue the great work she did during her term as National Legislative Rep.

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.

Railroad Retirement:

Good news for retirees in 2015. Effective January 1st retired employees will be receiving a $34.00 a month increase in their annuity, and for those with combined benefits for the employee and the spouse the increase will be approximately $48.00 per month. In late December, the Railroad Retirement Board will mail notices to all annuitants providing a breakdown of the annuity rates payable to them in January 2015.

Also beginning in 2015, the amount a rail retiree can earn without deduction to their benefits will rise. For those under full retirement age throughout 2015, the exempt earnings amount rises to $15,720 from $15,480 in 2014. For beneficiaries attaining full retirement age in 2015, the exempt earnings amount, for the months before the month full retirement age is attained, rises to $41,880 from $41,400 in 2014.

Mid-Term Election News:

The mid-term elections have changed the face of the Senate as the Republicans have now taken control. This could potentially affect us all negatively on important railroad issues such as Amtrak, high speed rail, and two-person crews.

In a post-election day article by Frank N. Wilner, author of several books on railroads, rail labor, and Amtrak that appeared on the Railway Age website, stated:Rail labor most certainly is the biggest Election Day loser. With a new round of national contract negotiations about to commence, the increased number of anti-labor conservatives in both chambers portends treacherous shoals should an impasse lead to a threatened work stoppage and congressional intervention.”

Despite the disappointing election results overall, four states took a stand and voted to raise the minimum wage for American workers. Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota all said yes to raising the minimum wage amounts in their states. Also, in California the city of San Francisco voted to raise their minimum wage up to $15.00 an hour to be phased in by 2018.

FRA:

Joe Szabo, Chief of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration will be stepping down effective January 2015. Szabo has served in his current position for six years and is the first Administrator of the FRA that came from the ranks of the rail workers.

In a recent statement, Szabo said, “In 2008, the year before I came to FRA, 26 rail workers perished in on-duty fatalities – a rate of more than two per month. Through your good work, we drove that down to a record low number of 14 employee fatalities in 2013 – still too many, but a remarkable improvement. Now, 10 months into 2014, we are at five fatalities for the year and getting so close to the ultimate goal of zero. I’m counting on the practices we’ve put into place, particularly proactive programs like Confidential Close Calls Reporting, to get us to zero in 2015.”

Credit for military service under the Railroad Retirement Act

Many railroad employees have at some time served in the Armed Forces of the United States. Under certain conditions, their military service may be credited as rail service under the Railroad Retirement Act.

The intent behind the crediting of military service under the Railroad Retirement Act is to prevent career railroad employees from losing retirement credits while performing active duty military service during a war or national emergency period. Therefore, to be creditable as compensation under the Railroad Retirement Act, service in the U.S. Armed Forces must be preceded by railroad service in the same or preceding calendar year. With the exceptions noted later, the employee must also have entered military service when the United States was at war or in a state of national emergency or have served in the Armed Forces involuntarily. Military service is involuntary when an employee is required by law, such as Selective Service System conscription or troop call-up from a reserve unit, to leave railroad service to perform active duty military service.

Only active duty military service is creditable under the Railroad Retirement Act. A person is considered to have been on active duty while commissioned or enrolled in the active service of the Armed Forces of the United States (including the U.S. Coast Guard), or while ordered to Federal active duty from any reserve component of the uniformed Armed Forces.

More information on this topic can be found at http://www.rrb.gov/opa/qa/pub_1410.asp

SEPTA Agreement Reached

After nearly five years of negotiations, a tentative agreement has been reached between the 200 locomotive engineers of Division 71 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and SEPTA, the commuter `rail system. This new tentative agreement was reached only, after a one-day strike in June that ended with a Presidential Emergency Board appointed. The tentative agreement will include a pay increase of 13.32 percent, the first pay increase since 2010. SEPTA also dropped its demand that engineers wear a uniform, which has been a point of contention during the negotiations. There are still pending safety issues, however, BLET Vice President Steve Bruno stated, “We still have critical safety concerns related to fatigue caused by long hours and inadequate training for new engineers. We will now seek resolution through federal regulators and public hearings rather than through collective bargaining with SEPTA.”

It is estimated that nearly 126,000 people ride the SEPTA commuter trains daily.

Delegates pledge support for two-person crews:

In October, the delegates at the 2014 BLET 3rd National Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, stood together in a show of solidarity when they adopted a resolution pledging the BLET’s support for two-person crews for the employees of the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad (W&LE), where the fight has gone on for years. As stated in a BLET News Flash dated October 2, 2014, the resolution declares that the delegates resolved to “pledge our unwavering solidarity and assistance to the members of Division 292 to win this fight.” The resolution also calls upon all BLET members and all railroad workers to provide aid and support as necessary in the coming months and years in order to ensure victory.  Following our recent midterm elections and the change in power in the Senate, it will be more important than ever to continue to support the work of the union in the effort to keep two-person crews on all trains. To see the resolution in its entirety, please go to http://www.ble-t.org/pr/news/newsflash.asp?id=5636

New Jersey Economic Group Shows Support for H.R. 3040

New Jersey Economic Group NJ SEED has announced its support for two person crews. The NJ SEED issued a letter to legislators expressing its backing for H.R. 3040. In a BLET News Flash, NJ SEED is quoted as saying, “NJ SEED is committed to working to preserve two-person crews for the … safety of our railways and citizens,” wrote Michael K. Drulis, Executive Director of NJ SEED. “The stakes are too high to do otherwise; the safest and securest workplace for the nation’s railroads, their employees and the public at large is one that includes a minimum of a two-person crew.”

“Both the engineer and conductor are critical to train operations — working symbiotically — dependent on one another for proper and sound procedures,” according to NJ SEED’s letter of support. “Paramount to the issue of crew size for train operations is ensuring safety on the nation’s rails. Instances in the past have proven that two-person crews play a vital role in working with first responders to protect the public and work in effort to guarantee safe practices.”

Thank you NJ SEED for recognizing the importance two-person crews play in the safety of rail workers and the communities they serve, not only in New Jersey but across the U.S.

BLET– PAC

Is your spouse a member? As things begin to change with the new Republican-controlled Senate, now is a great time to sign up to help in the fight on Capitol Hill. Funds from the BLET-PAC are used to help support our friends in Washington who are willing to fight on behalf of all of us on issues that impact our families and our livelihood:

  • Railroad Retirement
  • Amtrak Funding
  • Federal Employers’ Liability Act
  • Railroad Security
  • Railroad Safety

If you are interested in supporting the BLET-PAC Fund or would just like more information about it, please click on this link. Its money well spent! http://www.bletdc.org/action/PAC/