Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

A Disappointing And Shocking Discovery

If there is one thing that I have been consistent at as a parent, it has been taking advantage of “teachable” moments when they arise. There are no better examples than those that are occur as they are happening. One of those moments is actually happening right now, and to be honest, I had no idea the situation was that bad.

I am of course referring to the looming railroad worker’s labor strike. Up until this point, all I really knew about railroads, were there were four of them in Monopoly, a favorite television character for children named Thomas, was created after a train engine, and I could enjoy a scenic ride into New York City on a train. Obviously, our railroad system is much more important than how minimal it appears in my mind. The possibility of a strike by railroad workers, just weeks before Christmas, would be devastating for everyone.

The first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “strike,” is better pay. Nothing gets under the skin of someone who is not part of a union more, than hearing a group of workers striking to get more money, something that a non-union member truly cannot appreciate the difference being in a union would make. And if you look at the situation with blinders on, a reference to equipment horses wear to keep them looking in only one direction, the pay raise being offered looks outstanding and really, shocking, an immediate 14% increase with an increase to 24% by the year 2024. Now, if you look at just those percentages, it is easy to think, “sign the damn contract, how greedy do you have to be?”

There are two things to consider. First, it has absolutely nothing to do with greed. A normal union increase in wages can range from 1-5% as long as contracts are agreed to and the flow of the labor agreement is not interrupted. But the railroad workers have been working without a contract for over three years. And for the contract to only cover up to the next two years, financially, this contract is nothing more than “catch up.”

It is the second thing that caught my attention, working conditions. Improving working conditions is one of the biggest and most important features of belonging to a union. Just ask a coal miner, a police officer, a teacher, or a railroad worker. One of those working conditions that is being fought over, to the point that our government has actually had to get involved with, something that does not have a good history record (look up “air traffic controller strike”) in our country, is paid sick leave.

At one point, I belonged to the United Steel Workers Union. And if there is one thing I would think that any union would have included in their contract for their members is some sort of sick time policy, especially for one as vital as the railroad system. But railroad workers do not get sick time. In most cases, even to take unpaid sick time, you know, like when you are fighting a serious illness such as cancer, could result in reprimands up to and including termination. How is this possible, that one of the most powerful unions, one of the most vital unions to our economy, does not have a necessary benefit for its members?

To be clear, a company that provides sick time, does not guarantee that an employee will not get reprimanded or fired for using sick time. Over the decades of my life in the cancer world and survivorship, I have seen so many different situations on how sick time is handled from the truly compassionate to the reprehensible. The employer I worked for when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma 34 years ago, bent over backwards to make sure that I would not have to worry about lost time, hence, lost income, or losing my job. A different employer years later, provided no benefits, but simply allowed you to take whatever time you needed to get better or heal. But it was my last employer that shocked me to the level they would go to, to restrict sick time being used.

Following my emergency heart surgery in 2008, my doctor had ordered me out of work to allow my rib cage to heal properly, six months. Healing time took longer for patients exposed to radiation therapy. But as I approached my third month, I received a notice, and to put it in perspective, I was working for a major pharmaceutical company, that if I were not to return to work by the end of the following week, I would be terminated. I had a doctor ordering a recovery period, that my employer disagreed with, and per department policy, would begin the procedure to terminate my employment if I did not go against my doctor’s orders.

If you have followed “Paul’s Heart” long enough, you know I am a patient and survivor advocate, and one of the things I advocate for are employee rights. Long story short, I made sure my supervisor knew all about the Family Medical Leave Act, as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act, and that in no uncertain terms, I would fight to keep and return to my job when able. Anyway, no pun intended, I clearly have gotten “off track.”

Look, no one will argue, business owners need their employees to show up for work. It does not matter if it is a major employer like the railroads, or a small “mom and pop” store. And though no employer should be expected to absorb the extended costs of a lengthy absence, hence what short term and long term disability are for, it should not be unreasonable for an employer to provide a minimal amount of sick time, for example, three to five sick days per year, paid.

Finally, getting to the “teaching moment” for my daughters, it falls on the employee however, not to take advantage of that benefit, but rather to use it as needed. And if it is not needed, then do not use it. All too often, an employee might call out sick, because their employer denied a request for personal time off, or an employee just felt like “skipping” work that day. And no one can blame an employer for getting upset for the business interruption to upset the employer.

Up until my health decline, my daughters only knew one thing. I rarely called in sick. Numerous years, I would actually earn “perfect attendance” rewards. I had personal time I could use for necessary personal business, but I never used sick time to go on a vacation or just skip work for the day. As a parent, I led by example, and my daughters were kept in school. I did not, and do not believe in taking my daughters out of school to go on family recreational trips. As my daughters approached the end of their secondary education, I encouraged them, that attendance is an important factor with college plans and scholarship applications. Why is all this important? Responsibility and reliability. No one can blame an employer, or a college or donor, to expect a commitment, reliability. It is too easy to fall into the trap of impulsively abusing absence policies. That is why it is best not to start, which I have often stated to my daughters over the years. You never know, when you are going to have a serious situation to deal with in regard to attendance, and your reputation might just be critical to keeping your employment.

I do not “have a dog in the fight” for the railroad workers, other than the economic impact of course. But I do not think it is that much to provide employees with even a minimum and respectable number of paid sick days, no matter what the employment may be. Better working conditions should contribute to better attitudes of workers, which should correlate to better efficiency and profit of a business. Just saying.

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