Updated 3.31.2020

Fact Sheets

Railroads & COVID-19: Keeping Workers Safe

Railroad Workers Keep Critical Goods Moving

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As the COVID-19 situation continues to evolve across the globe, North America’s freight railroads remain focused on safeguarding the health and safety of the rail workforce while working tirelessly to maintain the flow of goods necessary to preserve public health and sustain families — such as delivering chlorine-based disinfectants for water, enabling e-commerce, transporting food and moving energy products to support electricity demands.

Recognizing the industry’s responsibility to both the nation and their people, railroads maintain and routinely review their pandemic response plans that have addressed other events including the H1N1 outbreak. Since news of COVID-19’s spread in early January 2020, railroads and their Chief Medical Officers have been working together to update and adapt their plans to specifically address the need to contain, mitigate and respond to the coronavirus outbreak in line with most recent recommendations coming out of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The industry holds daily calls among cross-functional teams to share information and best practices to keep their railroad employees and their families — as well as the larger community — safe. Railroads are also in constant communication with the federal partners at the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Department of Homeland Security and the White House as well as state and local officials on evolving public health developments and efforts to contain the spread of the virus.

As the situation remains fluid, railroads will continue to monitor the situation closely and modify their response accordingly.

Protecting the Health & Well-being of Employees

Freight railroads are taking significant precautions to protect the health and well-being of their employees. These efforts include:

  • Providing timely and accurate information on virus-related news, CDC-recommended workplace spatial distancing and mitigation strategies, and company-specific protection and mitigation efforts through a variety of dedicated channels.
  • Limiting possible exposure by screening workers pre-shift where feasible, directing employees to avoid contamination “hot spots,” enabling employees to enter records remotely, avoiding face-to-face briefings where possible, and providing access to railroads’ licensed health professions to assist with questions and keep teams updated as the situation evolves.
  • Expanding the frequency of cleaning and sanitation with EPA-approved products and in accordance with CDC recommendations in maintenance facilities, railroad headquarters, dispatch and operations centers, on locomotives and rail equipment and railroad-operated sleeping facilities and in railroad-operated motor vehicles. Railroads have also requested enhanced cleaning of hotels and motor vehicles used by railroad contractors. Railroads are making sanitizers and wipes broadly available across the network to employees.
  • Expanding benefits by broadening insurance coverage for virus testing and telemedicine, and in some cases offering paid leave for virus-related absences.
  • Limiting group settings by conducting meetings and briefings via phone or radio, postponing training classes and spreading out or isolating work areas. Additional efforts for frontline employees include allowing single occupancy hotel accommodations, staggering breaks, limiting crew members per locomotive and motor vehicle and limiting group dining by making to-go options available and, in some cases, providing financial stipends for takeout meals.
  • Restricting access to mission-critical locations like operations and dispatching centers to only essential staff who must be present to perform their duties and restricting vendor presence on railroad property.
  • Expanding social distancing by limiting movement around the network by individual employees and activating secondary dispatch and operation locations.
  • Transitioning employees to telework where possible to reduce density, including those not directly involved in train operations and at headquarters.
  • Instituting new measures to limit spread by restricting domestic and international employee air travel, selectively allowing personal vehicle use and coordinating with suppliers and vendors to ensure they are also taking proper protections.
  • Adhering to CDC guidelines by requiring employees to follow CDC guidance for self-protection; directing sick employees to stay home and seek medical guidance; and instructing workers to self-isolate if they have been exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 and to notify their designated railroad contact to identify other railroad employees who may have been exposed. Railroads are also following CDC and local health departments’ recommendations to monitor impacted employees as well as implementing approved cleaning and decontamination protocols for any affected facility and/or equipment.

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Relief for Rail Workers Affected by COVID-19

Unlike the average American worker, railroaders do not receive unemployment benefits through state-administered programs but rather through the Railroad Retirement Board’s (RRB) Railroad Unemployment Insurance Program (RUI). As a united front, the AAR and the American Short Line Railroad Association (ASLRRA) joined with rail labor in calling on Congress to provide rail workers affected by the coronavirus with the same vital protections they extended to other impacted Americans in the first COVID-19 stimulus package. Of note, H.R. 748 includes the following railroad specific provisions:

  • Waives the 7-day waiting period for filing a sickness or unemployment claim with the RRB and provides $50 million to cover the costs of providing these additional benefits
  • Increases unemployment benefits through an additional $1,200 bi-weekly benefit and provides $425 million to cover the costs of providing these additional benefits through July 31, 2020
  • Allows RRB to access approximately $130 million of remaining American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to provide extended benefits through December 31, 2020
  • Supplies $5 million to RRB for additional administrative costs

Railroad Workers Keep Critical Goods Moving

America’s freight railroads play a critical role in nearly every industrial, wholesale, retail and resource-based sector of our economy.  For example, railroads typically originate roughly 60,000 carloads of food and agricultural products per week. Additionally, most products sold at retail providers such as Target or Walmart get there with the help of rail intermodal.

Some of the critical goods railroads and their workers are moving as the nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic include:

  • Chemicals required for medicines and food packaging
  • Chlorine-based disinfectants for treating water
  • Energy products for generating electricity
  • Fertilizer for growing crops
  • Grain and corn for cattle feed
  • Municipal waste
  • Oil for heating and gasoline
  • Rail cars for transporting food products
  • Retail products that end up on store shelves, such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies
  • Wheat used by bakeries to make bread/pasta that are increasingly in need

Taken together, it is clear why railroads are considered critical infrastructure by the federal government and are called upon to operate continuously to help ensure human health, safety and economic security. It is during times like these we are especially grateful for the roughly 150,000 employees keeping the rail network running. Our diverse and skilled employees are dedicated to ensuring railroads remain a critical link to American businesses and society.

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