NEEDLES — People lament the lack of groceries on the shelves due to the hoarders buying it all up, and praise the truck drivers traveling our highways bringing food to the stores to restock.
But if it wasn’t for local railroaders, the whole thing would stop before it even gets to the truckers.
Obviously they are essential, but when you dig in deep to see what they are dealing with, it’s quite a scary challenge.
Michael Miranda is the local Teamster division 383 Chairman. He is also a national delegate for the Teamsters and on the General Committee of Adjustments audit committee.
Born and raised in Needles, he has been on the railroad for 23 years. He has never seen anything like the situation that exists right now due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is definitely not business as usual,” Miranda said. “The railroad has heightened the precautions for sterilization in the cabs. They are sanitizing doors, control stands, floors, everything at every stop. In every station and terminal we have sanitation wipes and bleach and water to spray down our computers, our bags. In every crew van we have, to transport us to the trains, they are wiping down the seat and things to protect our employees. So this is something we have never seen before.”
The railway workers routinely jump into cabs immediately after a crew from another area just brought the train to Needles. In Needles, either it’s a crew that just came in from Barstow, California, of, if coming from the east, it may be a crew that jumped on in Winslow, Arizona.
Either way, the potential for infected persons to have been on the train at some point is high.
“Every 30 minutes, there is a different person getting into the vans, a different crew member,” explained Miranda. “They could be from Winslow, they could be from San Bernadino, Bakersfield, LA, Needles, Phoenix. Every 30 minutes a train runs out of here.”
While the trains are exclusively cargo haulers and don’t have to worry about passengers, they are deemed an essential business. Railroaders cannot simply stay home. When called, they have to answer or face disciplinary action in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement.
“People say ‘I can’t stay home, I’m a nurse, I’m a caregiver, I’m a medical provider’ ” Miranda said. “(Like them) we were mandated by the government that we must work because we are an essential and vital part of the economy. We have to work. We are running supplies and equipment from the West Coast to the East Coast. We have no options.”
That cargo includes medical supplies needed around the country for combating the coronavirus, supplies needed immediately. The trains also have a significant amount of supplies and equipment that is being brought in through the port in Long Beach, California, that is coming in from other countries, compounding the danger that these hard-working employees face every day during the crisis.
While the government has put restrictions on the ships coming into the port from China, the ships still are coming in. Much of the trade has been curtailed and some ships are opting to turn back. With the needed equipment outweighing the potential dangers, some are allowed in, providing they can pass the requirements.
These cutbacks result in fewer trains moving out of LA and ultimately fewer BNSF workers needed. As a result, the Needles station typically employs about 520 workers, but due to the cutbacks, they are currently at about 300.
“We’re not exempt from being put on furlough,” added Miranda, “or being on railroad unemployment. We’re getting cut off daily because we’re not unloading ships. We’re running fewer trains. This is one of the all-time lows. Worse than 2007-2008.”
One of those workers is Miranda’s son, Raymond Miranda, who is an engineer with BNSF. He typically will be one of those crew members jumping in the train in Needles and taking it to Barstow and back, but with the cutbacks, his seniority has relegated him to working in Barstow, building the trains and prepping them for their next journey.
“The crew right now is a three-man crew,” said Raymond Miranda. “We wipe it down, build the train, then turn it over to the crew. I’m just grateful to be able to work during these circumstances and thankful that Barstow has this job for me at this time, because a lot of guys are going without and a lot of guys are being furloughed. On the flip side, is it worth it to put yourself at risk and my family at risk to do this? But I have to provide for them.”
When the coronavirus began to surge in the United States, the union and the company ironed out what precautions could be taken to ensure worker safety. Those took affect on Wednesday, and both of the Mirandas were happy that they did.
“One thing the railroad has is the union who sat down with the company and said this is what we’d like to have,” said Michael Miranda. “ ‘This is what we’d like to see at each location,’ and we worked things out like that. Basically, the railroad workers are in control of our safety. Before this, we would take our own wipes and wipe down our control stands, our chairs. We did that on our own for our own safety. For our families. This came up and it took cooperation between the union and the company to put processes in place.”
From the front lines, Raymond Miranda said he was happy with the new procedures but still nervous about what could happen. He said he knows that he takes care of himself and his equipment, but does everybody who he is in contact with from other parts of the state and country?
“Just recently, there was a case confirmed in the yard I work at,” said Raymond Miranda. “There are three major departments that work in Barstow. All three work together to build the train. Just recently there was a carman who tested positive for coronavirus and there’s one pending. So, we all collaborate together to build the train. So we’re all interacting. So with that confirmed case, this has the potential to spread like wildfire because whoever he was in contact during his shift was now exposed. Then we give it to the crew who’s taking it to either Needles or LA, they get exposed.”
Another obstacle that the railroad workers face is being on the road and the availability of food, drink and other necessities. Typically, when a railroader leaves his home station and travels, there is a hotel, several nearby restaurants and gyms to occupy his time. With the non-essential business closures at many of the stations, that forces drastic changes to the workers’ routine.
“Those of us on the road,” Michael Miranda said, “when we get to our away-from-home terminal, having places to eat or grab coffee is important. A lot of us don’t have transportation there, so finding those things are tough. We have some crews away from their home terminal for 37 hours. You add the 12-hour trip there and a 12-trip back, and we’re talking planning for food for 60 or even 72 hours gone. It’s quite hard to plan for three days on the road.”
Raymond Miranda, a workout addict, added that there are no sit-down restaurants, and nowhere open to go.
“That poses a huge problem,” he said. “There are a couple (restaurants), but you have to have a way to get there.”
If that isn’t an option, he said they may end up eating from a local snack shack or gas station.
Lodging also is a problem. The workers are at the mercy of the hotel, hoping the business has followed CDC recommendations when cleaning the rooms after the previous guest.
“I was talking with a guy yesterday who asked me ‘Hey, what are we supposed to do about hotels?’ ” said Raymond Miranda. “I just thought we have to worry now if the people cleaning the hotels did a good job. As far as we know, they are taking all the precautions they are supposed to.”
Finally, there is the one thing that we all worry about: Families.
Michael Miranda is a new grandfather to a 2 1/2-month-old girl. The baby is out of town, and Michael’s wife, Maria, is with her. That makes things even tougher for Michael.
“It’s difficult,” he said. “I won’t be able to see my granddaughter for months. Not only that, my wife is there with my daughter and granddaughter, and we had that conversation where she can’t come home because I’m being exposed to elements our here. We have no other option but to stay apart, because I don’t want to contaminate her and that would limit her from going back to see my grandchild.”
Raymond Miranda, who has a wife and three daughters of his own, explained his concerns about catching the virus and bringing it home.
“You try not to think about it when you’re at work,” he said. “We deal with equipment that is unforgiving. It’s a safety-sensitive task every single day and with every single thing we do. You have to focus on what you’re doing, so you can’t think about ‘Am I going to get sick in this cab.’ I can’t be distracted. You have to get rid of those things and focus on the task at hand. After work, we clean up and then we’re really focused on protection.”
The two ultimately were happy with the way the union was able to work with the company and get the protections in place that they need. The frustration with being an essential business and not being able to take time away from the company is lessened by the precautions that the company is taking.
“What can we do?” asked Raymond Miranda. “If we stop, everything stops. Even though we are taking a lot of precautions, and we get briefed everyday, nobody really knows they are sick until they are sick. So I guess I just do the best I can to stay safe and stay healthy.”
“From a union standpoint,” added Michael, “we feel the company is doing everything they can. We know we are exposed, but we know it’s something we have to do. Every single day behind the scenes, railroad workers are taking freight to these locations, unloading them for truckers. Truckers take it to distributors and the distributors take them out to who needs them. Whether there’s a pandemic or not, we’re doing the same thing. Stress level or not, we just have got to do it. It’s our job.”