Bloomberg Law
Jan. 20, 2023, 10:45 AM

Sanders to Revist Rail Worker Paid Leave as Senate HELP Chair

Ian Kullgren
Ian Kullgren

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) plans to introduce legislation that would give 125,000 railroad workers paid sick leave, revisiting an issue at the center of an 11th-hour deal to avert a nationwide strike last year.

Sanders will introduce a bill in the coming months that would require rail carriers to offer a minimum number of sick days on top of the flexible leave workers already get in the collective bargaining agreement enshrined by Congress, according to three people briefed on the plan.

Such a proposal could force Democrats to reopen a debate that put them at odds with organized labor and some members of their own party, though it faces a tough road in a divided Congress.

While the discussion is still preliminary—and the details are in flux—the senator is determined to correct what he sees as a fundamental failure of the agreement, according to two union officials and a senior Democratic aide. Congress approved the deal brokered by the Biden administration despite four unions voting to reject it, mainly due to a lack of paid sick leave.

Such a proposal would face a challenging road in the Senate, and an even harder path to passage in the Republican-controlled House. But it’s likely to re-energize the left wing of the labor movement that felt betrayed by President Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers.

“I expect Bernie to introduce a lot of rail legislation this year, including sick leave,” said Greg Regan, chief of the AFL-CIO transportation trades department.

A paid sick leave proposal championed by Sanders passed the House in November, but fell eight votes short in the Senate. The sick leave provision was separate from a broader bill to impose a collective bargaining agreement to dodge a strike, which passed 80 to 15 in the upper chamber; Sanders voted no.

Union leaders continue to negotiate with railroad companies over sick leave but haven’t made much progress, said Tony Cardwell, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance Way Employes. His union has also sought a meeting with Biden since he signed the deal in December—and is growing impatient.

“We expect a meeting with Biden if we can’t take care of this with the railroads,” Cardwell said. “That’s not an ask—that’s an expectation.”

Chair Influence

Sanders will have a bigger platform to shape workplace policy as the next chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. But there are few if any paths to the 60 votes needed to pass a paid leave bill, said the Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy.

Sanders spokeswoman Freeland Ellis declined to comment on the senator’s plans.

“This struggle is not over,” Sanders said in a Dec. 1 statement, after the Senate rejected the paid leave proposal. “At a time of record-breaking profits for the rail industry, it is disgraceful that railroad workers do not have a single day of paid sick leave. As a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I will do everything I can to make sure that rail workers in America are treated with dignity and respect.”

But any rail proposal would require support from Republicans—a hard ask, but not impossible, Regan said.

Even if Republicans don’t back sick leave, he said he expects they’ll be willing to play ball on “bigger issues,” like stress testing to ensure railroads can meet demand surges.

Diego Areas Munhoz contributed to this report

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Kullgren in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Genevieve Douglas at; Rebekah Mintzer at