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U.S. railroad investor resolutions urge paid sick leave for workers

FILE PHOTO: Railway workers load railcars onto train in California

By Ross Kerber

(Reuters) - Investors have proposed shareholder resolutions at two U.S. railroads calling for paid sick leave for workers, an issue that nearly caused a national rail strike, and they could go to an advisory vote at shareholder meetings in the spring.

On Friday President Joe Biden signed legislation to block a rail shutdown that could have devastated the American economy. But the deal he approved did not include paid sick days for workers, a key sticking point for unions in contract talks with five major U.S. railroads.

Proposals seen by Reuters filed by activist investors ask Norfolk Southern Corp and Union Pacific Corp to offer "a reasonable amount" of paid sick time, determined by company directors. If accepted each resolution would appear as a ballot item at the railroads' springtime shareholder meetings.

Kate Monahan, a director at Trillium Asset Management, the socially minded investor that filed the resolution at Union Pacific, said more flexible sick time would have broader benefits like reducing workforce turnover.

"There’s a clear business case that makes sense to us as investors," she said.

A Union Pacific representative did not comment on the resolution, but referred to a trade group statement that industry employees already receive substantial time and leave for longer-term illnesses.

A Norfolk Southern representative declined to comment.

Resolutions about worker welfare have drawn more support at corporate annual meetings in recent years amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Voting on the resolutions would not be binding.

Railroads worry implementing paid sick leave would require more employees at a time when many have cut their workforces dramatically. Had sick time been included in recent federal legislation it would cut U.S. rail earnings 1.5% to 2%, Susquehanna analyst Bascome Majors wrote in a Nov. 30 investor note.

(Reporting by Ross Kerber in Boston, Additional reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)