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Eastern Railroad Discussion > Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortages.


Date: 04/13/22 14:06
Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortages.
Author: HogheadMike

As a UP engineer with 17 years of service, I would like to add my two cents to the actual reasons behind labor shortages, which has become a huge topic among the industry, railroaders, and the unions alike.  I believe that there are little bits of truth floating around, but neither the unions nor the railroads seem to get it, and I do not see a good resolution coming out of this any time soon.  Let me start with an anecdotal saying that I heard from an old SP hand on one of my first days on the job in Roseville all those years ago. "Kid, do you know why we are paid so well?"  I shrug my shoulders in response.  "We are paid to be available on call, and for the inconvenience of our time."  This saying has been there in the back of my mind ever since, and it lies at the root of why the railroads now find themselves in a manpower shortage.  Railroads it seems, have lost sight of this altogether in a world of "competitive" salaries, which is just business school lingo for screwing people out of what they should be paid.

Could anyone do this job?   I have heard this from railroad management for years, and the short answer is yes.  Technically, anyone can be a conductor or an engineer.  It does NOT require a specialized degree from an ivy league school.  There is however an immense amount of knowledge, experience, and skillset that goes into how to operate a train effectively or switch cars in a yard, or effectively manage industry switching on a local, and some people just never quite can get it.  There is an immense amount of book knowledge and muscle memory that goes into doing the job effectively, but technically, yes, anyone could do it.  There are plenty of careers that require no degree, but significant specialized knowledge and skillsets, and many of them pay far less than the railroad does.  This is what the railroad means when they say they want to pay a more "competitive" salary.

Are railroaders all uneducated high school grads that can't do anything else?  This is another one of those gaslighting techniques that the carriers love to throw out there in their propaganda meetings about how "the crews are screwing them."  They love to say that we are overpaid high school grads.  This is simply not true.  I personally have a four-year business degree and manage my own rental properties and keep up-to-date balance sheets, income statements, and accounting records.  Several of my coworkers have degrees and a few of them hold advanced degrees.  Many of my coworkers are retired from the military, serving 20 years and discharging at very high ranks before beginning a career at the railroad.  Others were small business owners or experts in fields such as welding and metal fabrication.  They left for the promise of a good retirement, excellent pay, and excellent health insurance.  The only thing they needed to do is to learn the job, be available for call, and allow their time to be inconvenienced by the railroad, just as that old head SP conductor once told me.

But the game has changed.  We are no longer paid for the inconvenience of our time.  There once was a time when railroaders were paid exceedingly well for the inconvenience of their time.  In real purchasing power, they made salaries that were among the highest in the middle class.  This is no longer the case and hasn't been for a long time.  Our salaries are "competitive," as they would say in the business world, however, our work conditions are not competitive at all with the employee that works 9-5 with weekends off.  That is understandable.  This is transportation.  We will never get a 9-5 schedule with weekends off as long as crews have to travel out of town.  We know and accept that.  With that fact in mind, we need to be compensated in a way that once again acknowledges that we are not normal office workers.  So many railroad executives claim that our rate of pay is "outside the norm" for workers of a similar skill set.  I would argue that this is misleading at best and a downright lie at worst. Let me explain

A round trip takes me 40 hours on average, I gross around $1000 over these couple days, which sounds like a lot.. We are paid a flat rate of pay per mile, no overtime, which is fair.  If the trip takes 12 hours each way, which is common, then I sit in the hotel for 16 hours without pay, this comes to an hourly rate of $27 per hour before taxes.  We have away from home meal expenses which I will discuss later and this time is effectively lost to us as we do not start getting paid again until we have been at the away from home terminal for at least 16 hours.  We are federally licensed and certified employees with years of experience under our belt.  According to Google, the average rate of pay per hour for a plumber is between $45 and $200 per hour.  Electricians are between $40 and $100.  Even jobs at Mcdonalds these days begin at $15 or more per hour these days, and all of those employees are taxed at a lower rate than railroaders.  The railroad is no longer an upper-middle-class place to work unless you work around 6 trips per paycheck, which is on average, 120 hours per week.  Sounds nice, doesn't it?  

We pay higher taxes.  Many non-railroaders love to comment on our "excellent" retirement plan, without realizing that its just social security under a different name.  Yes, railroad retirement seems to be "safer" and it pays more, but most railroaders never even see it if they work as many years as it takes to actually collect it.  You cannot retire until you're 60 years old.  So, if you hired on at 19 years old, you would have to work over 40 years to get this retirement.  With our lifestyle, which sadly often leads to divorce, poor health, obesity, alcoholism, diabetes, etc, many railroaders die only a few short years after they retire.  In addition, railroad retirement isn't free.  We pay tier two tax on top of the tier one tax that most people pay every check.  Between Railroad Retirement taxes and medicare tax, we pay a whopping 15% of our income, automatically before even one penny is spent on Federal or State taxes, and long before any of it actually hits our account so that we can actually buy the things we need to support our families (and pay taxes on that too of course.)  This additional railroad retirement tax means that a nonrailroad employee grossing $92,500 is actually making the same as a railroader that grossed $100,000 per year, and was never home.  Plus, we are in the higher tax bracket for longer with no benefit as we cannot write off railroad retirement taxes against our federal and state income.  This means that between Railroad Retirement, Federal, State and Sales tax, the average unmarried railroader pays 50% of their income above $40,526 per year.  Married railroaders pay 50% tax on income over $81,051 as these are the brackets where the 22% federal tax rate kicks in.  With that much taken in taxes, and the rapid rate of inflation in housing, food, and nearly everything else, the railroad is rapidly becoming just another job that requires both parents work just to make ends meet.  That, by the way, was always one of the benefits to the railroad, and what encouraged employees to stay.  The railroad was always a job that regardless of conditions, could ensure that the mother did not have to work, so that at least she could take care of the kids.  This benefit is gone for most railroaders now, especially in the more expensive regions.

What about away from home meals?  Away from home meals used to be a lucrative tax write-off to offset some of our horrible tax burdens.  The tax changes a few years ago eliminated all of that for us.  Everyone received double the standard deduction, so now hardly anyone has enough deductions to itemize on their tax return.  We lost our ability to count up how many days we were out of town for the year (usually 150 or more) and write off the amount against our taxes.  The "tax cuts" were a tax increase for railroaders. 

"But railroad companies are large corporations, don't they pay nontaxable meal allowances to their employees for travel? "

The IRS currently allows 60 dollars per day throughout all the USA for non-taxable meal allowances when traveling for work.  Does the railroad pay that, or anywhere near it?  No they do not, and the unions are to blame for this.  They never fought for an increase in the only portion of our paycheck that is not taxed.  Consequently, as an engineer, I can be gone away from home for 48 hours or more sometimes, and I make 9 dollars for my meal allowance.  Meanwhile, one decent meal costs minimum 15 dollars before a tip.  I'm taxed on everything else.  It wouldn't even cost them anything......just redesignate a portion of our pay as a nontaxable meal allowance and it would give us a significant raise to combat the high food inflation that is eroding our once excellent pay.  There is another "solution" that the railroad tells us......just pack a lunch box with all of your meals and don't eat out for 36 hours at a time.  Yeah, because I want to do that for 30 years?  Eat cold leftovers because the railroad is too cheap to actually designate some of my pay as a nontaxable meal allowance.  Just more expectation of "competitive" pay without competitive work conditions.  Either way, just like in other industries, the feeling of futility and desire to quit is pretty tempting when a majority of your finite and priceless time on this world ends up confiscated by the taxman, partially due to the indifference of our employer.

Our union contract has been expired for several years now, but because of the railroad labor act, we cannot strike, and no matter what the issue being discussed, the government always sides with the railroads in ruling even the most major dispute, such as taxes being improperly calculated as "minor," so that it must be settled via arbitration.  We simply must continue working under our old contract until the eventual day that the next contract is crammed down our throats.  This one will be big too.  The unions and the carriers are at an impasse.  They want one-man crews, and they want us to have "competitive" health care plans, and they want "competitive" pay.  (remember what that means from earlier)   Additionally, they arbitrarily change the attendance policy whenever they want, which has very real, very major effects on our lives and families.  But since they say this is just company "policy" and not an agreement, we have no say over our lives.  Meanwhile, we worked faithfully and nonstop through their covid fiasco and endless quarters of record profits and share buybacks and leaps and bounds in technology and efficiency. We don't deserve to be left out in the cold while the railroad industry thrives on technology improvements and easy money Fed policies.

Yet, the saying goes, "more with less."    It seems to be the slogan in all industries, not just the railroads.  People of all industries are done with that phrase.  We are done with any company claiming to own our lives.  We are done being told what we need to inject into our own bodies and we are done being thrown out with the garbage every time the railroad sees an opportunity to furlough.  This time, the furloughs were different.  There once was a time when the railroad furlough agreements were written, when jobs were plentiful for the most part.   It was still worth it however to wait for the day when your seniority was good enough to return to the railroad.  The conditions have changed.  That promise is no longer there.  The railroads pay an average salary and expect you to live a worse than an average lifestyle to earn it.  The people that were furloughed during PSR for what seemed like an eternity all were rational humans that will act in their own rational self-interest.  And that interest told them that the railroad does not want to negotiate on contracts, they don't pay very well anymore, they don't care about your life or family and they actively lie and accuse the employees of being the cause of all of their problems.  They are open and on the record as wanting to gut our health care plan.  Meanwhile, when you are working for the railroad, you pay higher taxes and ruin your health, social, and family life.  The additional money that you pay into railroad retirement could be better spent on personal investments and the opportunity cost of railroad retirement is just simply not worth the hype that it is given.  It was a natural and rational conclusion to quit and not come back when CMS started calling to recall furloughs.  Bottom line, the railroad went to far and caused a deep-rooted resentment that will never go away......in its employees and in the communities they serve.  Word gets out, and that's why they can't seem to hire anyone.  Everyone in those railroad communities across the country knows their game now.  They know without any doubt that the railroad industry is owned by Wall Street hedge funds now.  Even in my time at the railroad, the company is not recognizable and I could NEVER lower myself to go into management for it, even though I had wanted to several years ago.  Now, even I, a train lover, a railroad history enthusiast for life.....even I am counting my days and expanding my investment opportunities into other fields so that I can pull the pin early and leave the railroad to burn.



Date: 04/13/22 14:57
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: toledopatch

This is really well written and effectively summarizes a lot of what I've heard verbally from numerous other rails from other companies.

At least publicly, of course, the industry is thoroughly in denial about every word of it.
 



Date: 04/13/22 15:49
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: shadetree

True, EVERY word.

Eng.Shadetree



Date: 04/13/22 15:52
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: 20yearrrman

The BLET is testifying in front of the STB at end of the month. If you have a personal experience reach out and share it with your union rep so it can be heard. The madness needs to end.

Posted from Android



Date: 04/13/22 16:09
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: ClubCar

toledopatch Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> This is really well written and effectively
> summarizes a lot of what I've heard verbally from
> numerous other rails from other companies.
>
> At least publicly, of course, the industry is
> thoroughly in denial about every word of it.
>
And he hit the nail on the head about those big Hedge Funds and the railroad Bean Counters.  They want every penny that they can squeeze out of their employees, unfortunately.  When I was a youngster growing up and going to school, we were taught that companies of all types of business were expecting to make a reasonable profit.  Back years ago, most people who owned stocks in major corporations, including the railroads, were happy with a reasonable profit and their dividends.  Now these big Hedge funds and other greedy investors want it all, every penny that they can get, and don't worry about the employees.  Sad but true.
John in White Marsh, Maryland



Date: 04/13/22 16:17
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: aronco

What are the union's proposals to resolve the work/schedule problems?  Has any union suggested changes?  After all, negotiations should be entered into in a spirit of give and take, with the intent of reaching an agreement.

Norm

Norman Orfall
Helendale, CA
TIOGA PASS, a private railcar



Date: 04/13/22 16:35
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: sphogger

Didn't work like that Norm.  Most of the quality of life conditions were systematically taken away either by cram down contracts or by forced edicts.   These guys work under what is left.  There is no self help (strike) solution under the Railway Labor Act.  The carriers stonewall, the Unions end up with the Carriers wishes after the Railway Labor Act runs its course.   Sphogger



Date: 04/13/22 19:49
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: Off-pending

Perfectly wrote. I’m 2 years from being fully vested in RRB. Everyday I work I question whether or not I will stay after that.



Date: 04/13/22 19:56
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: Mojacket

Spot on. Some days I think it might be okay to go back and get seven years to get to 30, but then I remember my life is so much better outside of the railroad world.  



Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 04/13/22 19:58 by Mojacket.



Date: 04/13/22 21:33
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: Drknow

aronco Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> What are the union's proposals to resolve the
> work/schedule problems?  Has any union suggested
> changes?  After all, negotiations should be
> entered into in a spirit of give and take, with
> the intent of reaching an agreement.
>
> Norm

You’ve cut and pasted this from a few months back. We know you are a retired company officer that still wants to play the labor/union bad card. Don’t act simple, YOU know the union has had absolutely no power in this because the Carriers and the courts that ALWAYS agree with them say it’s a POLICY and not contractual. So labor gets POLICY crammed down our throat.

Posted from iPhone



Date: 04/14/22 11:16
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: Chessie

Well stated.  For decades I looked forward to going to work.  Now I dread it.  Counting down the months to 360 at which point I will be actively exploring my options. 



Date: 04/14/22 12:02
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: engineerinvirginia

Chessie Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Well stated.  For decades I looked forward to
> going to work.  Now I dread it.  Counting down
> the months to 360 at which point I will be
> actively exploring my options. 

When I hit 360 plus a little to make vaction it will be "mark me off retired and don't call me no more!"



Date: 04/14/22 12:27
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: Rathole

From a 38 year class 1 railroader, thank you.  You explained it to perfection.    



Date: 04/15/22 03:40
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: Forever-Railfan-45

"More with less...". Quintessential example.

Posted from Android



Date: 04/15/22 22:19
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: cockaboose

Off-pending Wrote:
-------------------------------------------------------
> Perfectly wrote. I’m 2 years from being fully
> vested in RRB. Everyday I work I question whether
> or not I will stay after that.

Why would you even stay just to be fully vested? Is 5 years of service really gonna pay you anything? Just curious as I have 25 years of service now and still don't understand all the RR Retirement stuff.



Date: 04/20/22 10:14
Re: Some different insight into the true reasons for crew shortag
Author: CaliforniaSteamin

Very well said.  Yet when you see how the executives live, it's a totally different story.  To be an executive at UP, you have to sell your soul and not give a darn how people are treated.  Some people can do that for a comfy lifestyle and others cannot live with themselves if they are screwing the little man.  One day it will bite them one way or another.  

-CSN



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