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.

Are You Registered to Vote?

Election Day is right around the corner; are you registered to vote? How about your son or daughter, niece or nephew who just turned 18 or is away at college? Your wife or husband? They say that every presidential election is the most important one in history but perhaps this one really is the most important with the current candidates and the potential threat to us, and to all working people. We need to make a strong showing at the polling booths this November so make sure you are registered to vote now. The railroad life doesn’t always allow us to be home on Election Day, so think about an absentee vote so you will still get the opportunity to have your vote count. You can register to vote online at Rock the Vote https://register2.rockthevote.com/registrants/map/

Smart Watch Rule Issued by FRA

The Smart Watch rage is everywhere these days, including the railroad. These handy devices not only tell you the time, they also count your steps, monitor your heart rate, and notify you of incoming calls and text messages. And that’s where the Federal Railroad Administration has deemed them to be a problem. These devices can cause the same distraction as other personal electronic devices. The FRA has acknowledged that time pieces have always played an important role in the railroad industry, but have stated that the primary function of Fitbits and other smart watches is not that of time keeping but rather of fitness tracking. The rule states, “In Title 49 CFR 220.303, a railroad operating employee shall not use an electronic device if that use would interfere with the employee’s or another railroad operating employee’s performance of safety-related duties. No individual in the cab of a controlling locomotive shall use an electronic device if that use would interfere with a railroad operating employee’s performance of safety-related duties.” Keep in mind also that the rule does not discern between the different models of smart watches, because not all have the advanced functions, but it’s probably safe to err on the side of caution and just leave your smart watch at home.

Collective Bargaining Helps Verizon employees

In a 45-day strike, one of the longest strikes in recent history, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) representing Verizon employees were able to come to a tentative agreement with the corporate phone giant. On April 13, 2016, close to 36,000 Verizon employees walked off the job due to poor working conditions, jobs being shipped overseas, and healthcare and retirement issues, as well as being without a contact for over ten months.

The Verizon strike is an example of the importance of working people having the right to stand together and being able to negotiate collectively for fair wages and benefits as well as safe working conditions. “This tentative resolution is a testament to the power of collective bargaining,” U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez said in a statement. CWA President Chris Shelton also stated: “This proves that when we stand together we can raise up working families, improve our communities and protect the American middle class.”

BLET Testifies on 2-Person Crew Proposed Rule

On July 15, 2016, BLET Vice President and National Legislative Representative John Tolman testified at a public hearing conducted by the Federal Railroad Administration on the proposed two-person crew rule. A July 18 BLET News Flash reports that “Vice President Tolman expressed the BLET’s growing frustration with the Association of American Railroads’ (AAR’s) assertion that not enough data exists regarding the safety of single-person crews. The only way to gather single-person crew data is for train crews and the public to assume the risk that is being offloaded by the railroads and onto them. AAR claims that since single person operational data does not exist, then FRA should either keep the status quo or allow single person or no person operations.” Also in attendance supporting the two-person crew rule were John Risch from the SMART Transportation Division, and Edward Wytkind, President of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

BLET members: Important notice regarding Health and Welfare rates

As a reminder, effective July 1, 2016, the cost share for active BLET members has been increased to $228.89. This increase is in accordance with the 2012 National Agreement and will stay in effect until the next National Agreement is reached.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

The public comment deadline passed on July 8 for the potential rule proposed by the Department of Transportation (DOT), Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The rule would require train operators as well as truck drivers to be screened for obstructive sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a respiratory disorder that causes breathing to stop and start while sleeping. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of OSA can include waking up gasping or choking, excessive daytime drowsiness, morning headaches, high blood pressure, weight gain, and several other serious indicators that should not be ignored. “The sooner patients with OSA are diagnosed and treated, the sooner our rail network will be safer,” said FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg. For more information on sleeping disorders that directly affect railroaders, you can visit www.railroadersleep.org

Amtrak vs. Freight

The Safety Transportation Board announced that the current law stating passenger trains will have preference over freight trains, will stay in effect. The STB had recently considered a proposal that would have allowed railroads to prioritize freight trains before passenger rail. Amtrak argued that allowing this change would cause significant delays across the country to their passengers, both commuter and long-distance. The current statute was developed in the 1970s with the creation of Amtrak.

Railroad Employee’s Sickness and Unemployment Benefits

(July 2016 article from the RRB.org website)

The Railroad Retirement Board (RRB) administers the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act, which provides two kinds of benefits for qualified railroaders: unemployment benefits for those who become unemployed but are ready, willing and able to work; and sickness benefits for those who are unable to work because of sickness or injury. Sickness benefits are also payable to female rail workers for periods of time when they are unable to work because of pregnancy and childbirth. A new benefit year begins each July 1.

For a list of questions and answers that describe these benefits, their eligibility requirements, and how to claim them, please see the related article on page 12 of the Summer issue of BLET Auxiliary News. This publication can be found online at http://www.bletauxiliary.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Summer-2016.pdf.