When Allison’s husband, a conductor for the country’s largest freight rail company BNSF, wanted to take time off in the past, it was a hassle. As a relatively junior member of a workforce—now with about 10 years on the job—where most everything is based on seniority, he had an unpredictable work schedule. It worked out, roughly speaking, to five weekdays and two weekend days off per month, with allowances to bunch days off to cover the unexpected.
“It took us years to figure out how to do it without getting in trouble,” Allison, who asked not to use her last name out of fear of retaliation by BNSF, told Motherboard. “In fact, in training, he asked, ‘How do I take a day off?’ and they said, ‘Don’t worry about it, just come to work.’”
For years, they made it work, even if it meant he was never home for holidays. Allison’s family would ask in November if he would be there for Christmas, and she’d reply, “I don’t know he’s going to be here tonight.” At least if there was an emergency at home, he could be there.
On January 10, BNSF announced a new attendance policy called the “Hi Viz” program that was supposed to improve upon the old system. Hi Viz is intended to “provide more predictability for our train crews while also providing more reliable crew availability,” according to a BNSF statement, “while ensuring that we have sufficient employees available to work.” In court filings, BNSF said the new policy would make it easier for workers to plan their lives and avoid discipline for excessive time off while also helping the railroad deal with the supply chain crisis by running more service.
But workers, their families, and the unions that represent them not only disagree but speak of Hi Viz in apocalyptic terms. They regard it as a draconian measure that makes no sense except as an effort to get every BNSF employee to quit out of rage, depression, or ill health. It glues workers to their phones waiting for a call to go into work, provides little leeway for emergencies, and virtually assures workers will see their families for just a few hours a week. Dennis Pierce, the national president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), called Hi Viz “the worst and most egregious attendance policy ever adopted by any rail carrier.”
Motherboard sent BNSF a list of questions regarding Hi Viz and its impact on workers. BNSF did not address those questions and instead provided a written statement identical to other statements BNSF has released to press, which is published in full at the bottom of this article. It said, “Based on initial feedback, BNSF has already modified the program. We look forward to continuing to work with our employees to gather input and refine the program if needed.”
Describing the old policy compared to Hi Viz, where her husband merely missed Christmas every year, Allison said, “we fondly look back at that. Like, oh, God, I miss that.”
Has Hi Viz impacted your life? We’d love to hear from you. Email Aaron Gordon at email@example.com.
Railroad life for engineers and conductors—the people who actually run the trains—is different from most jobs. Normally, employees get a work schedule in advance and plan their lives accordingly. But the railroad doesn’t work that way because freight trains don’t run on set schedules. The seven “Class I” freight rail companies, the largest in North America, instead operate under the euphemism of “Precision Scheduled Railroading” or PSR (BNSF is the lone holdout that has technically never adopted PSR as a corporate philosophy, but workers say it has adopted many of the principles like longer trains, a drastically reduced workforce, and a greater emphasis on profit in lieu of maintenance). But, as workers and railroad customers are quick to point out, it is neither precise nor scheduled. Often, railroads wait for trains to have enough cargo to make it profitable to run them, then they call workers in to run the trains. Once the freight trains reach a certain location—usually a terminal or rail yard—approximately 12 hours from their home terminal, the workers are replaced with a local crew and stay in a hotel, during which time they are waiting unpaid for 18 to 48 hours waiting to get called to take a train back towards home.
Because the trains are not scheduled, workers don’t know when they’ll have to go to work next. Instead, they get a call and have to be at the railyard in about 90 minutes to two hours, and they could be gone for days.
Therefore, conductors and engineers abide by an on call system. Under the old system at BNSF, referred to by the acronym ATG, workers had to be on call roughly 75 percent of the time. They wouldn’t be working all of that time, but they had to be ready to work within two hours, meaning they couldn’t schedule doctors appointments, go far from home, or even see a movie or any other activity that requires being away from a phone.
There is a board available online that shows the order employees will be called to work that is supposed to aid in transparency and predictability. But the workers Motherboard spoke to says it does the opposite. For whatever reason, trains do not show up on the board until just before workers are called. The estimated call time for each worker is therefore way off, making it impossible for workers to accurately plan their sleep schedules. And workers try not to officially declare a “lay off,” or 24 hours not on call, until they get close to the top of the board to maximize their time off. As a result, a worker who might be, say, 10th on the board will suddenly find themselves next in line. Because things can change so quickly, workers are constantly glued to their phones looking at the board.
Historically, the pay and benefits make up for the unpredictable lifestyle. Conductors who work the most unpredictable jobs can make six figures a year plus good health care. Under ATG, most everyone considered this a fair trade. But under Hi Viz, the union estimates in court filings that workers have to be on call upwards of 90 percent of the time. Not just waking hours, but all hours.
Unlike ATG which relied on confusing equations to figure out time off, Hi Viz uses a simpler points system. When Hi Viz went into effect on February 1, each worker started with 30 points. The only way a worker can stop being on call—other than the federally-mandated time off after a shift which is often spent in a hotel away from home—is to lay off, as it is called in railroad terminology. In many cases, this comes with a points deduction. These deductions range two to 15 points or more depending on the timing and circumstances, which are generally not in an employee’s control. Nearly all holidays—including Christmas, New Years Day, Thanksgiving, Super Bowl Sunday, and Halloween—are “high impact days” designated by the company that cost almost as many points as not showing up for work. Take two holidays off and most workers would be out of points.
The only way a worker can get more points is by being on call for 14 straight days, at which point they accrue a “good attendance credit” of four points. But, according to court filings, if employees have to take time off for an illness or condition that qualifies for the Family Medical Leave Act, an injury on duty, a scheduled vacation, or any other kind of paid personal leave, the 14 day clock resets. If they miss a call, are sick, have a sick family member they must care for or other kind of family emergency, they will also be docked points for the absence and the 14 day clock resets.
If an employee uses all 30 points—they take two holidays, for example—they are suspended for 10 days, have an investigation opened on them, and start again with 15 points. If they lose those 15 points, they are suspended for 20 days and go back to 15 points. If those 15 points get deducted, they’re fired.
BNSF never responded to Motherboard’s question about what “modifications” the company made to the policy based on “initial feedback” as it claimed in its statement. Through subsequent reporting, Motherboard learned BNSF initially included a death in the family and jury duty as days off that would reset the 14 day clock. The company changed it so now if, say, an immediate family member dies, the employee is no longer punished for that.
Due to the unpredictable schedules and obvious need for robust safety measures, few industries battle worker fatigue as much as the railroads. Workers and safety experts worry Hi Viz will only make the problem worse.
Even when workers were only on call 75 percent of the time, the nature of when the calls do (or don’t) come disrupted sleep schedules. For example, workers might be told by the railroad’s scheduling system to expect a call around 8 a.m., so they go to sleep around 10 or 11 p.m. But then the call comes at 2 a.m., putting them on a 12-hour shift with just a few hours’ sleep and on a very different circadian rhythm. But under the old system, workers had enough flexibility to take 24 hours off if they were too tired to work. Under Hi Viz, they do not.
A BNSF conductor based in Texas, who also asked not to use his name for fear of company retaliation, said he typically gets four to six hours of sleep a night because of the railroad’s unpredictable schedule, less than he did when he used to work as a firefighter and EMT. Even when he has the time to sleep, he can’t because of the stress that the phone is about to ring calling him to work.
He has seen first-hand how Hi Viz is pushing people to the breaking point. He is on medical leave while he undergoes pre-surgery treatment—under the old system he could have kept working while scheduling doctors appointments for days off, but under Hi Viz he cannot—so he has assumed an informal leadership role to help his coworkers understand and cope with the new system. But it’s not going well.
“I can tell you right now the lack of rest is directly involved with stress, high alcohol use, I know there’s drug addiction out there, divorce rates,” he told Motherboard. “These guys are having to choose, because of Hi Viz, whether they save their points or they go to a brother or uncle’s funeral. I had one guy who didn’t have any points to take off because he had just been sick in the ER and couldn’t take his pregnant wife to the doctor.” He says the workers he talks to are “at their wit’s end. They don’t know what to do.”
The consequences of this stress and fatigue could be dire, says Paul Iversen, a labor educator at the University of Iowa who has studied worker fatigue. “Long hours cause issues, irregular hours cause issues, night hours cause issues. They each independently increase your risk. And so when you have all of them, then you have a greatly increased risk. And the results can be catastrophic.”
For worst case scenarios, Iversen cites a 2011 crash in Red Oak, Iowa, when a BNSF train rear-ended a work train, killing both crew members aboard. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation found both workers were asleep “due to fatigue resulting from their irregular work schedules and their medical conditions,” which the NTSB suspected was undiagnosed sleep apnea. In the week prior to the crash, the engineer was on duty for three daytime shifts, had two days off, then switched to a night shift. The crash occurred just after sunrise when he had likely been up for close to 24 hours. The investigators concluded he had been asleep at the switch, mindlessly disabling an alarm that sounded after two minutes of engineer inactivity. The crash occurred 1 minute and 53 seconds after the alarm had last sounded.
But, Iversen notes, that wasn’t the worst case scenario. The Red Oak train was carrying coal. But freight trains are the preferred way to transport hazardous materials, the last place anyone wants someone asleep at the switch or too stressed to focus.
From BNSF’s perspective, Hi Viz appears to be working. In a letter to the National Grain and Feed Association, an industry group representing one of BNSF’s largest customer bases, CEO Katie Farmer listed Hi Viz as one of its initiatives to improve service.
“While change can sometimes be difficult across large organizations,” Farmer wrote, “it has led to a substantial increase in crew availability across our network to help keep customer freight moving.”
But for workers and their families like Allison, they say the situation is untenable. In a March 28 letter to members, Pierce said more than 700 union members have quit since the policy went into effect. Jeff Kurtz, a retired BNSF worker and BLET local president whose family has worked for the railroad since 1937, told Motherboard, “Hi Viz basically turns your life into a scorecard. And you have no say whatsoever what that scorecard is going to look like.”
BNSF, fearing the union might strike over the new policy—the unions and BNSF are in contract negotiations—went to federal court to get a temporary restraining order preventing the workers from doing so. They not only won, but the judge also barred workers from “slowdowns, sickouts, or other self-help,” a legal term of art that workers fear also includes speaking out about Hi Viz.
But even that judge, who ruled in favor of BNSF, said in the same decision: “Simply stated, the Hi Viz attendance standard is harsh.”
Kurtz, who has decided to speak out over Hi Viz since current employees cannot, worries the ramifications of Hi Viz extend far beyond BNSF. “Make no mistake about this, if BNSF gets away with this, every other railroad is going to do the same thing. That’s a given.”
The conductor from Texas who has spoken to dozens of BNSF workers about the toll Hi Viz is taking on them fears the worst. “It’s a very personal and heartbreaking thing for the people I’m talking to because this was their dream job. Dream benefits, dream of being a part of American history and being out on the rails. And it feels like that’s all coming under attack by corporate America making billions that’s, somehow, not enough.” (BNSF reported $6 billion in profit in 2021, a company record.) He expects a mental health crisis among BNSF workers. “From my background, I’ve seen what happens when people are stressed, when they’re exhausted. I’ve seen what people resort to when they feel like there’s no hope and nobody has their backs. I feel like we haven’t reached the peak of this yet.”
BNSF’s full statement: “BNSF's new system will provide more predictability for our train crews while also providing more reliable crew availability, which is essential to meeting our customers' expectations and the demands posed by an increasingly competitive global supply chain. Our program is designed to provide ample time for obligations outside of work, including planned vacations, personal leave days and unplanned absences while ensuring that we have sufficient employees available to work. Based on initial feedback, BNSF has already modified the program. We look forward to continuing to work with our employees to gather input and refine the program if needed. BNSF team members drive our success and we couldn't deliver the nation's goods without them. We understand that change can be an adjustment, but we believe we can adapt together to meet today's competitive freight environment."