September 15, 2022

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

Update: Freight rail companies and railroad unions reached a tentative agreement early Thursday morning that could prevent a widespread strike. That deal now heads to the unions for a vote. Workers will not strike while the votes are tallied.

A national rail strike could begin tomorrow. It is difficult to overstate how much is at stake. A third of America’s freight travels by train at some point. Congress could get involved, and Republicans say the government should step in. Business Insider reports:

On Wednesday, Sens. Richard Burr of North Carolina and Roger Wicker of Mississippi introduced a resolution that would enact recommendations from a presidentially appointed panel aiming to resolve the labor dispute.

“There are mechanisms that have been in the law for a long time to allow Congress to step in and prevent the economic disaster that would ensue,” Wicker said on Wednesday. “I think it’s time to invoke that provisional law.”

The White House has been attempting to avert a strike, with the president reportedly calling both unions and management and the administration getting ready for potential fallout from a shutdown. Meanwhile, Amtrak has canceled some cross country routes to head off potential strike disruptions.

Keep in mind that a dozen railroad unions are involved in the contract negotiations that threaten to spark a national rail strike. On Wednesday, one of the unions — the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents 4,900 of the more than 100,000 railroad union workers — rejected the contract but also voted not to strike until at least Sept. 29.

The rejected contract included significant pay increases and other benefits including cash bonuses. Here are some of the details:

The highest general wage increases (GWIs) ever achieved through National Freight Bargaining. This means a 22% GWI (24% compounded) over five years and includes $5,000 in recognition bonuses.

Full retroactive pay.

An additional paid day off for all members to use as a Personal Leave Day, Single Vacation Day, or a Personal Holiday.

Enhanced hearing benefits and added coverage for diagnosis and treatment of Autism

Spectrum Disorder, while protecting all the excellent benefits of our healthcare plans.

A “Me-Too” clause, ensuring IAM Rail Division members will receive the same additional value if another union reaches an agreement that improves the terms of this agreement.

The IAM released this statement:

IAM freight rail members are skilled professionals who have worked in difficult conditions through a pandemic to make sure essential products get to their destinations. We look forward to continuing that vital work with a fair contract that ensures our members and their families are treated with the respect they deserve for keeping America’s goods and resources moving through the pandemic. The IAM is grateful for the support of those working toward a solution as our members and freight rail workers seek equitable agreements.

The Association of American Railroads told CNBC that the companies “have no plans to lock out workers Friday should negotiations not be successfully completed.” But, CNBC says, the rail companies are shutting down some operations anticipating a significant interruption of service:

In an email to members, the National Customs Brokers & Forwarders Association of America listed the timeline of closures. CNBC has compiled a list of just some of the rail changes ahead of the deadline:

Wednesday: BNSF, which is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, stopped moving refrigerated units into inland facilities

Wednesday: Norfolk Southern stopped receiving exports

Thursday (Today): CN stops receiving exports

Norfolk Southern and the other railroads have been ramping down freight in anticipation of a strike to move critical hazmat materials, such as chlorine and ethanol. This freight is taking priority over common freight.

But NS told CNBC it has altered some plans to accommodate more regular cargo.

“We continue to provide the most flexibility as we can for customers for as long as they can,” a spokesperson for the railroad told CNBC on Wednesday. “We have extended the period of time to accept trucks bringing containers into our land terminals until 5 pm tonight.”

Originally, NS intended to stop accepting containers Tuesday.

Recovering from the disruption created by a strike could take weeks, if not months, according to CNBC.

“Delivery of oversized transformers for transmission and distribution, natural gas turbines, and power generators, as well as renewable technology such as wind tower sections and blades, rely on the U.S. rail systems,” said Marco Poisler, COO of UTC Overseas, warning of “overwhelming delays” for deliveries.

“Transporting such cargo takes months of planning and rail engineering resources to identify available specialized rail assets with the right axle spread and deck height to achieve railroad clearance,” Poisler said.

Just to give you an idea of how much stuff moves on railroads, look at this graphic from the Association of American Railroads:

(Association of American Railroads)

The AAR also has a useful graphic that explains what journalists need to understand about America’s intermodal system:

(Association of American Railroads)

What is an intermodal system? Shippers use several modes of transportation to get goods from one place to another. They may arrive at a U.S. port by ship, be trucked to a rail yard, move by train across the country, then trucked to the end user. Then the finished product may again be loaded on a truck, train and back on a truck to arrive at a customer’s store or home.

This complicated dance relies on everyone keeping schedules for deliveries. A strike — even a brief one — could back up the system for weeks or longer.

Social Security checks might increase by a record amount in January

Social Security recipients will likely see an average increase of $144.10 a month beginning Jan. 1 because of this week’s inflation figures. Social Security’s cost of living increases are linked to the Consumer Price Index which, as you know, rose again last month. The 70 million people who get Social Security payments will see an increase that will likely hover around 8.7%. Some Social Security recipients are concerned that they may end up having to pay taxes on their income in 2023 because the increase will push them into the next tax bracket.

The Social Security Administration will announce the official benefit increase amount on Oct. 13.

What is ‘quiet quitting’ and why is it trending?

The phrase quiet quitting came from a Wall Street Journal article and has spread fast on social media. It refers to how some Gen Z professionals are saying no to hustle culture, as in, “I’m not going to do extra.”

Axios explains further that the quiet quitting culture “is a rebellion against the ‘rise and grind’ ethos. The rising approach is to work to live, instead of live to work. Don’t leave your job — but focus on fun, fulfilling activities outside of work while staying on the payroll.”

Gallup has some polling data that underpins this drop in worker engagement in 2022:

32% of full- and part-time employees working for organizations are now engaged, while 17% are actively disengaged, an increase of one percentage point from last year. The survey measures several workplace elements, including employees’ level of agreement about clarity of expectations, opportunities for development and their opinions counting at work. In short, engaged employees are involved in and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. Actively disengaged employees are disgruntled and disloyal because most of their workplace needs are unmet.

(Gallup)

Gallup found:

Since before the COVID-19 pandemic, the decline in the percentage of engaged employees was evident across all three groups — exclusively remote, hybrid and exclusively on-site — but highest for employees who are exclusively remote. The decline was especially evident on engagement elements relating to clarity of expectations, materials and equipment, recognition, development, and connection to the organization’s mission or purpose.

Gallup also found that younger workers are far less likely to feel their work has “a purpose.”

Job satisfaction across all generations is the lowest it’s been in 20 years, according to a MetLife report.

Axios adds one more thought bubble about this movement:

Younger workers are craving mentorship and camaraderie they’re not getting from the new world of work — so they’re disengaging. If CEOs and managers take away flexibility, workers will bolt. Instead, leaders need to communicate better why their mission matters, check in with employees, and figure out how to export company culture via Zoom.

FatFiring, the opposite of quiet quitting, is trending too

Fortune points out that the pandemic also pushed some people to work harder and retire as quickly as possible. That movement is referred to as FatFIRE, which stands for Financial Independence and Retire Early.

If quiet quitting is simply doing the minimum a job requires in a quest for a more equal work/life balance, FatFIRING advocates the opposite. It tells people to lean into work rather than lean out, and hustle as much as they can to achieve the same thing most workers want: freedom.

If quiet quitting is simply doing the minimum a job requires in a quest for a more equal work/life balance, FatFIRING advocates the opposite. It tells people to lean into work rather than lean out, and hustle as much as they can to achieve the same thing most workers want: freedom.

The online forum subreddit r/fatFIRE is filled with people discussing investments, sharing tips, and telling stories of getting FatFIRED—the day when they retire in their 30s or 40s after having stockpiled millions of dollars in liquid and illiquid investments.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Are you subscribed? Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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