President Joe Biden speaks before signing H.J.Res.100, a bill that aims to avert a freight rail strike, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Washington. Credit: Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

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A railroad strike could have been devastating, for the U.S. economy and for everyday life, as many goods that we take for granted are transported by rail. At the same, we’re uncomfortable with Congress imposing a less than satisfactory contract on rail workers.

So, we sympathize with lawmakers in Washington who had to make the difficult choice of how to vote on a bill that averted a strike with an agreement that included pay raises but left a paid leave disagreement unresolved. The bill was approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in early December.

A strike was averted, and that is a good thing. But, the agreement approved by Congress can’t be the final word on working conditions for America’s roughly 145,000 rail workers.

Frankly, the railroad companies’ system of staffing and time off is off the rails. Staffing challenges are hitting all industries. We understand that railroads need workers in place to literally keep the trains running on time. But, not providing paid time off for sickness and other events is unacceptable.

The staffing problem started, industry experts say, after the rail companies moved to a system known as precision scheduling. This system allows railroads to move goods more efficiently, but it requires fewer workers, the Washington Post reported. From November 2018 to December 2020, the rail industry lost 40,000 jobs, according to a report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau cited precision scheduling as a major reason for the decline in workers.

Although rail company stock prices soared after the switch, the new system leaves little leeway when employees need to take time off.

Some rail workers warned that employees may leave the rail workforce because of the lack of paid sick leave.

Some rail unions sought a new labor agreement with seven paid sick days per year. The House passed a bill with seven days, but it also passed another bill without them. The Senate approved the version without the paid sick days.

The contract passed by the Senate does include a 24 percent increase in pay by 2024, annual bonuses of $1,000, and a cap on health care premiums. Rail carriers also agreed to give conductors and engineers one additional paid day off per year and new flexibility to take off work three times a year for routine health appointments with advance notice.

“To overturn the workers’ rejection of the proposal, especially when it centers around sick leave, is troubling to me,” Sen. Susan Collins told the Washington Post in late November. She voted for an amendment, which failed, that sought another 60 days of negotiations rather than having Congress impose an agreement on the companies and unions. Four of 12 unions had rejected an agreement that did not include more paid sick days.

Taking more time made sense, but that train left the station.

Sen. Angus King called the vote to force a contract to avoid a disruptive strike a “necessary step.”

“While I would have preferred for unions and rail companies to finalize the September contract agreement through the normal bargaining process, the disastrous impact of a rail strike was simply a price we could not afford to pay,” King said at the time.

Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat, also opposed the agreement without sick leave in the House. He voted for the bill with the added leave. Rep. Chellie Pingree, also a Democrat, voted for both bills.

There were no perfect choices for lawmakers on this issue.

But, because the president and Congress forced this deal, they have an obligation to encourage rail companies and the unions to keep working toward a better resolution to the paid time off situation. The White House should host those talks, and the sooner the better.

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The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...