Weekly Column

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We all know that this year has been tough. 2020 brought with it the greatest pandemic in over a century, and while the measures we have taken to contain it have been necessary to protect public health, they have also come at a cost. 

Despite our best efforts, Nebraska has lost more than 700 dearly loved friends and family members to this virus. I would like to offer my deepest condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one from COVID-19. 

But thankfully, Nebraska has avoided some of this year’s worst economic disruptions. A recent Nebraska Bureau of Labor report showed that we have the lowest unemployment rate in the country at just 3.5%, and even though we still have further to go, the resilience of Nebraskans has been inspiring.

Workers across just about every industry have been affected by the pandemic, but not all have received relief in the same way. Unfortunately, this has been the case for railroaders.

Unlike most American workers, when a railroader loses their job or misses work with an illness, they don’t receive unemployment and sickness benefits from state-administered programs. Instead, railroaders’ benefits come from the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act program, which is administered by the Railroad Retirement Board, or RRB. Railroaders’ sickness benefits come from the RRB as well.

A harmful provision of the Budget Control Act of 2011 has prevented these workers from receiving the full amount of the benefits that are owed to them. This bill mandated federal spending cuts, and one of these cuts led to railroad unemployment and sickness benefits being reduced by a set percentage each fiscal year. State-administered programs and federal funding for regular unemployment insurance benefits are not subject to this sequester. 

This has resulted in hundreds of thousands of hard-working railroaders receiving less unemployment insurance and sickness benefits than they are owed. So far this year, the RRB has received more than 133,000 unemployment claims, up from 35,000 during all of 2019.

This is why I recently cosponsored a bipartisan bill that would make sure railroaders receive these benefits in full. The Railroad Employee Equality and Fairness Act, which Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced at the end of October, would end the sequester on the RRB’s unemployment insurance program and provide railroaders with the full unemployment and sickness benefits they deserve.

They introduced this bill after the RRB announced that railroad unemployment and sickness benefits will be reduced by 5.7 percent from October 2020 through September 30, 2021. This means that the current benefit rate will be reduced by nearly $100 each month.

Without this legislation, this sequester would continue to reduce railroad unemployment benefits over the next ten years. That wasn’t right before this pandemic, and it certainly isn’t right now.

Railroaders have earned these benefits. They pay payroll taxes just like you and I do – the only difference is that their taxes go directly to the RRB, and this makes them ineligible to apply for regular unemployment.

There is no reason why we should treat railroaders’ unemployment and sickness benefits any differently than other workers’ benefits, and the Railroad Employee Equality and Fairness Act recognizes this. I am a proud cosponsor of this bill, and I look forward to helping Senators Portman and Klobuchar get it passed.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.