The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to approve a bill to block a potentially crippling railroad strike and to mandate paid sick time for rail workers.
Lawmakers voted 290 to 137 to impose a tentative contract deal reached in September on a dozen unions representing 115,000 workers after President Joe Biden warned of the catastrophic impact of a rail stoppage that could begin as early as Dec. 9.
The House separately voted 221 to 207 to give seven days of paid sick leave to railroad employees, but that faces an uncertain fate in the Senate. Democrats and some Republicans have expressed outrage over the lack of paid short-term sick leave for railroad workers.
“We know much more needs to be done for railroad workers,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said ahead of the votes. “No one should be at risk of losing his or her job by staying home when sick, needing to see a doctor or getting lifesaving surgery.”
A rail strike could freeze almost 30% of U.S. cargo shipments by weight, stoke already surging inflation and cost the American economy as much as $2 billion per day, and strand millions of Amtrak and commuter rail passengers.
After the vote, Biden called on the Senate to act “urgently.”
“Without the certainty of a final vote to avoid a shutdown this week, railroads will begin to halt the movement of critical materials like chemicals to clean our drinking water as soon as this weekend,” he said in a statement that did not address the separate paid sick leave proposal.
Railroads and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce oppose amending the contract deal that was struck in September largely on the recommendations of an emergency board appointed by Biden.
The influential business lobby group said the sick leave, if passed and signed into law, “would impose an unworkable, one-sided modification to a labor agreement.”
Biden on Monday praised the proposed contract that includes a 24% compounded pay increase over five years and five annual $1,000 lump-sum payments, and had asked Congress to impose the agreement without any modifications.
There are no paid short-term sick days under the tentative deal after unions asked for 15 and railroads settled on one personal day.
“This all could have been avoided had the railroads been willing to provide their employees with a basic protection and what so many Americans already have: paid sick time,” House Transportation Committee chair Peter DeFazio said.
Association of American Railroads Chief Executive Ian Jefferies said House action on sick leave could undermine future collective bargaining and argued the unions have historically bargained for higher overall wages and a more generous long-term leave policy.
Eight of 12 unions have ratified the deal. But some labor leaders have criticized Biden for asking Congress to impose a contract that workers in four unions have rejected over its lack of paid sick leave.
Both Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh are set to speak to Senate Democrats on Thursday about the rail labor issue.