Peltola says it’s not right to deny sick leave for rail workers

woman with long dark hair outside
Mary Peltola outside the U.S. Capitol in September. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

The U.S. House on Wednesday passed a bill to impose a labor contract on freight rail workers and avoid a strike that could cripple the national economy.

The bill passed 290-137. President Biden had pressed for the legislation, and nearly all Democrats voted yes. 

Rep. Mary Peltola was among only eight Democrats to vote no. She said she couldn’t vote for the bill because it didn’t provide a guarantee of sick leave for the workers.

“It just seems like a human right, a quality of life issue, to be able to see a doctor, to be able to take a sick day and know that you’re not going to lose your job or be severely penalized,” she said, shortly after the vote.

Working conditions for more than 100,000 freight rail workers have been subject to negotiations for months. Unless Congress imposes a settlement, a strike could begin Dec. 9.

Peltola acknowledged a strike could cause catastrophic damage to the economy. It would also endanger the economy, she said, to require railroad employees to come to work sick. They could infect their co-workers, she said, and those with dangerous jobs need to keep their wits about them.

She was carrying a box of Thera-Flu at the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon. She, her family and her campaign staff came down with a flu-like illness on Nov. 9, and she said she’s now contending with symptoms of something more minor. 

Alaska’s new U.S. House member won election twice this year with the endorsement of Alaska labor organizations. Peltola says she reached out to leaders at  the Alaska AFL-CIO to get their read on the bill before she voted.

Peltola said “some disappointment was expressed to me” by Democratic leadership, but they clearly had the votes without Peltola’s help.

“It was a protest vote. And, you know, a message of solidarity,” she said.

Peltola voted for another bill to add seven days of sick leave to the labor contract. That passed along party lines.

The legislation now moves to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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