Union Pacific Railroad (UP) routinely employs private investigators to find a pretext for firing employees taking sick leave, according to a lawsuit recently filed in Texas.
Shifts on the UP can last 12 hours for days at a time, and the danger of injury is a constant threat. In this case, UP Conductor De’Ron Rutledge had a serious back injury on the job in 2017. He returned to the job after weeks of rehabilitation, but his injury still flares up on occasion, preventing him from safely doing his job. Federal Law gives a worker injured on the job the right to unpaid medical leave until he or she is fully recovered, including recovering from flareups. UP didn’t like Rutledge invoking this right, so they hired a PI to follow him around and photograph him driving to the grocery store and walking a few blocks. Then UP fired him, claiming that this activity proved he was lying about his injury, as if a few minutes away from his home to pick up necessities was equivalent to meeting the physical demands of 12-hour shifts and a six or seven day work week.
Imposing long hours is how management tries to avoid hiring enough workers to run the railroad safely. The result is understaffing, the job being done with the minimum number of workers. Understaffing has made the railroads very profitable. Spying on and discipling injured workers is a way to intimidate the workforce not to report injuries and not to take medical leave. Making workers come to work, even if injured, helps the bosses impose unhealthy, unstainable workloads on the understaffed workforce.
This sort of abuse isn’t limited to railroads. The bosses in all industries are demanding more and more work out of fewer workers. To help enforce this, they are finding new ways to watch what workers do and say on and off the job, taking disciplinary action when they don’t like what they hear and see.
We can certainly hope that De’Ron Rutledge wins his lawsuit against UP, but everyone should have a right to paid sick days without being watched. Instead, we see bosses trying to chip away our rights and intimidate us. They have the money. It’s time for them to start making concessions to us instead of the other way around.