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Rail union negotiates more terms; some workers still disappointed



RICHMOND, Va. – Rail workers in a union with Virginia members reached a second tentative agreement with railroad corporations days ahead of another planned strike, though some members said they are still not happy with the new terms.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 19, or IAM District 19, rejected the initial tentative agreement made between President Joe Biden’s administration, labor unions, and top railroad corporations, including CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern.

The initial agreement included pay raises, better health care, and an additional personal day of leave, according to an IAM District 19 press release. The negotiations helped stop a mid-September rail strike that would have shut down passenger and freight rail.

The new tentative agreement outlines additional benefits like health care cost caps, travel reimbursement and single room occupancy, and a study on overtime pay, according to IAM District 19.

According to the union’s website, IAM District 19 represents 92 chapter unions across the U.S. and Canada, including one in Richmond.

According to a statistic from the National Railway Labor Conference, 12 unions represent about 125,000 rail workers, and the National Carriers’ Conference Committee represents more than 30 railroads in the U.S..

IAM District 19 members will still need to vote on the most recent agreement, which also includes the terms negotiated earlier this month, according to Eric Peters, a member of the union and a CSX roadway mechanic.

According to Peters, some workers are still upset that this recent round of negotiations did not resolve the lack of sick days and days off, the request to accrue vacation time faster, and the overall feeling of not being recognized as hard workers.

Some of the terms in the new agreement have already existed, like the solo hotel room occupancy during travel, just not in writing, Peters said. “Mechanics have had that for 20 years for CSX.”

Rail workers are still pushing for more time off, although the agreements would mean “a healthy pay raise,” according to Peters. Workers would see a 24% general wage increase with a $5,000 service recognition bonus, according to the IAM District 19 press release. This includes retroactive pay up to almost $12,000 within 60 days of the agreement ratification date.

According to Peters, train conductors get about one day off a month when they aren’t on call.

“The rest of the time, they’re on a two-hour recall,” Peters said. “If they don’t make it, they get in trouble, and that’s not a positive way to live.”

Rail workers receive about three weeks of paid vacation, and senior workers receive about five weeks on average, according to the Association of American Railroads, or AAR. Sick-time policies and routine medical care are pressing issues, but additional sick time was not implemented during the union negotiations.

Rail carriers offer a “federal sickness benefit program” to workers under existing agreements, while the new agreements recognize time-off for routine and preventative medical care, according to the National Railway Labor Conference, or NRLC, which represents railroads.

“I have no sick days at all,” Peters said, who said he has worked for the company for approximately 12 years.

Peters feels like the new tentative agreement still does not address these concerns.

Peters said that rail companies need to catch up to the rest of society and offer better benefits.

According to Peters, IAM District 19 originally planned to strike on Sept. 29 if additional negotiations were not met. Workers are now in a “cooling off” period that expires Dec. 9. They cannot strike until that date. Peters said some members are not happy leadership agreed to the additional cooling-off period.

“The members feel like they voted to strike, they waited their time, and they should have been given the opportunity to strike and to use their voice,” Peters said.

Workers have waited three years to strike, he said.

“We were prepared and ready and have been waiting a long time for our voices to be heard,” Peters said.

Once the member’s votes are finalized, it will dictate whether IAM District 19 accepts or rejects the new terms.

According to Madison Butler, communications manager for the Rail Passengers Association, national rail companies are being blamed for the poor working conditions that push workers to the extremes of organized strikes. According to its mission statement, the association advocates for more rail services and quicker rides for passengers.

“There are fundamental rights that these workers should have, and given the profit margins that these [Class 1 freight] companies take home, there’s no reason not to return that to the workers,” Butler said.

Cliff Dunn is co-chair of Virginians for High-Speed Rail and a frequent train rider. Corporations cutting jobs by the thousands have led to a decrease in working conditions, Dunn said.

“In some ways, the bad working conditions themselves are a symptom of the head-count [attendance] problem,” Dunn said.

The Railway Labor Act was drafted in 1926 to allow workers to collectively bargain to fix labor issues and help ensure the continued transport of goods, according to the Federal Railroad Administration, the overseeing agency.

According to Dunn, freight railroads across the country started to shut down a day before the planned Sept. 16 strike.

“If everybody goes on a strike, they don’t want to have a bunch of freight trains going dead in the middle of nowhere,” Dunn said.

Amtrak, a national passenger railroad company that shares freight rail tracks along some routes, preemptively canceled all long-distance passenger trips prior to the tentative agreement, according to a media statement from Amtrak media spokesperson Kimberly Woods.

Butler said the Sept. 16 strike could have affected over 19 million rail travelers.

The first tentative agreement was nearly three years in the making and involved two major unions in the country: the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and the SMART Transportation Division.

All unions are expected to ratify or reject the negotiated terms in the next few months, according to the NRLC.


By Adrianna Lawrence
Capital News Service

Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.

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Governor Glenn Youngkin signs legislation supporting Virginians with developmental disabilities and their families



On March 27, 2023, Governor Glenn Youngkin signed key pieces of legislation that will help support Virginians with developmental disabilities and their families obtain the support and tools necessary to ensure that they are able to succeed.

“The bills I’m signing today will improve the lives of so many Virginians, including those with developmental disabilities, who contribute so much to the culture and success of our vibrant Commonwealth,” said Governor Glenn Youngkin. “We must continue to strive to equip our students with the skills to compete, and education is such an important part of that process.”

Governor Youngkin signed the following bills today:

HB 1963, patroned by Delegate Chris Runion, and SB 945, patroned by Senator David Suetterlein, directs the Department of Medical Assistance Services to take steps to amend the Family and Individual Supports, Community Living, and Building Independence waivers to provide greater financial flexibility to individuals with developmental disabilities who are receiving waiver services. The bill requires the Department to report on its progress to the Governor and the General Assembly by December 1, 2023.

HB 1554, patroned by Delegate Emily Brewer, and SB 943, patroned by Senator David Suetterlein, requires each public high school in the Commonwealth to publicly identify on its official website the faculty member responsible for special education transition planning and coordination at such high school.

SB 1430, patroned by Senator David Suetterlein, requires the Department of Education to convene a stakeholder work group to make recommendations on reducing barriers to and improving access to paid work-based learning experiences for English language learner students.

“In Roanoke today, Governor Youngkin signed three of my bills into law that will provide greater transparency and flexibility for Virginians with developmental disabilities and opportunities for English learner students. I would like to thank Governor Youngkin and the many advocates, including The Arc of Virginia, the Roanoke City School Board, and the Commission on Youth, for coming together around these ideas that will improve the lives of so many Virginians. We are always strongest when we work together, and each of these bills will further empower Virginia families to thrive,” said Senator David Suetterlein.

“I am extremely blessed and pleased to continue our collaboration with The Arc on this legislation. With the Governor’s signature, focused, meaningful and impactful support will be available to our friends and neighbors who need it most,” said Delegate Chris Runion.

“Signing HB1554 into law means that the transition process will be more transparent for parents as they navigate special education services. Identifying the coordinator for each school will ensure parents know who their navigator is. As State Chair of the Commission on Youth, this legislation was part of our priority agenda for special education service coordination. I want to thank Governor Youngkin for signing HB1554, and I know he understands the positive impact this will have for Virginia parents,” said Delegate Emily Brewer.

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Board of Health members express concern about lack of state health commissioner



Members of Virginia’s State Board of Health expressed worries Thursday about the ongoing lack of a state health commissioner after the General Assembly failed to reappoint former commissioner Dr. Colin Greene in February.

“Several of us are very concerned about the delay in the appointment of a qualified leader,” said Board Vice Chair Wendy Klein of the Medical Society of Virginia.

Board member and veterinarian Jim Shuler urged the appointment of a commissioner with “a strong background as a medical physician and a strong background in public health.”

State law requires that the commissioner be a physician licensed to practice medicine in Virginia and certified by a recognized board overseeing a primary care specialty, as well as someone “experienced in public health duties, sanitary science, and environmental health.”

In written remarks sent to the board chair, Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources John Littel said Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration expects to complete interviews for the commissioner position by the end of the week, and he is “hopeful the governor will make a decision shortly.”

While Littel was expected to appear in person at the board’s Thursday meeting, his letter said he was unable to attend “due to a commitment to the governor.” Schedules from the governor’s office show he was slated to appear alongside Youngkin at a listening session on fentanyl held at a Bristol high school Thursday morning.

The health commissioner seat has been empty since Feb. 10, after Democrats in the state Senate refused to confirm the appointment of Greene, a former Army doctor, and local health district director. Greene had come under fire following a Washington Post story detailing his skepticism of the links between racism and health disparities, particularly regarding maternal health and mortality. Former state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, in a floor speech on Feb. 7 said Greene’s continued leadership was “having a chilling effect” on state public health priorities identified by the Legislative Black Caucus.

In the absence of Greene or a replacement, Virginia Department of Health Chief Operating Officer Christopher Lindsay has been acting as the top official in the agency but is precluded from assuming the commissioner role by the state code’s requirements for the position.

“I’m there simply as the chief operating officer to continue to provide that day-to-day leadership for the agency in consultation with the secretary of health,” he told reporters Thursday. Even in the absence of a commissioner, he said, “I believe we’ve continued to thrive.”

The lack of a commissioner doesn’t prevent the State Board of Health from operating, said several members of the administration.

Between the Virginia Department of Health, Board of Health, and health and human resources secretariat, “Everything is covered,” said Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Resources Leah Mills.

Victoria LaCivita, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jason Miyares, said in an email that “no board action requires approval by the commissioner.”

In an interview, Shuler, who was appointed to the board by former Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam, said he hopes the next state health commissioner will be “apolitical,” adding, “Health and disease, it doesn’t ask you if you’re a Democrat or a Republican.”

He said the board has “been in the dark” on the commissioner selection process. And while he acknowledged the body has not previously been involved in vetting candidates for the role, he said that “anybody in their right mind in the political world should realize that input should be accepted.”


by Sarah Vogelsong, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Youngkin signs bill creating $300 tax credit for gun safes



Firearm safety is about to get a little more affordable in Virginia after Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a bipartisan bill creating a $300 tax credit meant to reimburse people who buy gun safes or other lockable gun containers.

The legislation approved by the governor last week was the only gun safety measure that passed the politically divided General Assembly, drawing broad support as a small step to encourage gun safety without imposing any new rules on gun owners.

“This bill is not about requiring people to do anything,” Del. Alfonso Lopez, D-Arlington, the bill’s sponsor, said at a committee hearing earlier this year. “It’s not about banning anything. It’s not taking anything away. This bill simply gives a tax credit to try and incentivize something that many law-abiding gun owners already do.”

[Read more: Most gun storage bills appear doomed in Virginia General Assembly]

The nonrefundable credit can be claimed on state tax returns starting in the 2024 tax season. It can only be applied to eligible equipment purchases from federally licensed firearm dealers. The credit cannot be applied to the costs of purchasing a firearm itself.

In a rare show of cross-factional unity on gun policy, the legislation was backed by both the National Rifle Association and gun control groups like Giffords, Brady, and Everytown for Gun Safety.

The total amount of tax credits allowable under the new law is capped at $5 million per year. According to the legislation, the credit will be granted on a “first-come, first-served basis.”


by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Youngkin administration now requires felons to apply to get their voting rights back



In a shift from Virginia’s last three governors, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration is requiring people with felony convictions to proactively apply to regain their voting rights upon release from prison and is not automatically restoring rights for any group of offenders.

In a letter sent to a Democratic state senator this week in response to questions about an apparent slowdown in the pace of rights restoration grants after Youngkin took office, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James said the administration’s policy is to give former inmates an application upon release that explains how they can ask for their civil rights back.

“Our website was updated to include that application are considered individually and not granted on an automatic basis,” Coles James, whose office oversees rights restoration, wrote Wednesday to Sen. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, who chairs the Senate Privileges and Elections Committee.

The Virginia Constitution gives governors broad authority to set their own policies in granting or rejecting rights restoration requests. On Thursday, the Youngkin administration would not elaborate on the governor’s specific criteria to make those decisions.

Spruill promised to “fight back against the rollback of these rights.”

“Once you have served your time, your rights should be restored for non-violent felons. Period,” Spruill said in a written statement. “I will fight against this secret process and secret set of rules that the governor is using to decide who can be denied the right to vote.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, which supports a less strict rights restoration system, said the Youngkin administration “appears content to leave Virginians in the dark.”

“The Youngkin administration’s failure to disclose the criteria by which it will review incarcerated people’s applications for the restoration of their voting rights is hugely concerning,” said ACLU of Virginia Policy Director Ashna Khanna.

Virginia is one of just a few states with a constitutional rule that automatically disenfranchises people with felony convictions unless a governor chooses to restore their rights.

Youngkin restored rights to more than 4,300 Virginians in his first year in office, according to an annual report on criminal justice clemency actions. That’s roughly in line with how many rights restorations former  Democratic Govs. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner granted in their entire four-year terms, but it puts Youngkin well behind the pace set by more recent Democratic Govs. Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam. McAuliffe restored rights to more than 173,000 people. Northam granted more than 126,000 rights restorations. Former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, who ramped up rights restorations while he was in office, approved more than 8,000.

Youngkin spokeswoman Macaulay Porter said the governor “firmly believes in the importance of second chances for Virginians who have made mistakes but are working to move forward as active members of our citizenry.”

“The Constitution places the responsibility to consider Virginians for restoration in the hands of the Governor alone, and he does not take this lightly,” Porter said. “Restoration of rights are assessed on an individual basis according to the law and take into consideration the unique elements of each situation, practicing grace for those who need it and ensuring public safety for our community and families.”

In recent years, there has appeared to be a growing bipartisan consensus that a fundamental issue like voting rights shouldn’t be left to the whims of individual governors.

Democrats have pushed to make the rights restoration process as nearly automatic as legally possible, arguing that everyone who has reentered society deserves a say in the democratic process. Some Republicans, particularly those more open to criminal justice reform, agree the process should be more forgiving. The GOP’s tough-on-crime wing has insisted the loss of civil rights is an appropriate consequence for felony offenses that may or may not bring substantial prison time, and some Republican lawmakers have insisted on having rights restoration rules in place that take into account the severity of someone’s crime and whether they still owe money to the courts or their victim.

The rights restoration form being used by the Youngkin administration specifically asks applicants if they have been convicted of a violent crime or still owe fines, fees or restitution.

In a statement, House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said he was “pleased that there is some modicum of scrutiny as to whether someone has fulfilled their obligations to their victims and society.”

The Republican-led House of Delegates has blocked efforts to change the constitution to make the rights restoration process automatic in recent legislative sessions, despite several Republican delegates co-sponsoring the proposal.

Since McDonnell’s term, some former inmates returning to society have automatically gotten their rights back.

In 2013, McDonnell announced he would automatically restore rights to nonviolent felons who had paid off any fees or restitution owed in connection to the crime they committed. In 2016, the Democratic McAuliffe took a dramatic next step, signing an executive order that restored rights to more than 206,000 felons at once, characterizing it as a move to rectify the state’s history of suppressing the Black vote.

McAuliffe’s order applied to an unprecedented number of former inmates regardless of whether they had asked to have their rights restored. Its broad scope led to data processing errors that resulted in erroneous rights restorations to some people still incarcerated for serious offenses, including 132 sex offenders who had finished their criminal sentences but were still civilly confined because authorities had deemed them a danger to the public.

Northam largely continued the McAuliffe-era policy and took additional steps to streamline the process.

The legality of automatic restoration policies was at the heart of a high-profile court battle between Republican leaders in 2016.

After McAuliffe’s executive order, former House Speaker Bill Howell filed a lawsuit alleging the governor had overstepped the limits of his power. In a 4-3 ruling, a majority of Supreme Court of Virginia justices agreed, saying McAuliffe’s approach was so broad it had effectively nullified a constitutional rule.

The Supreme Court found that governors must conduct an individualized review of each person eligible for rights restoration, a finding Coles James referenced in her letter to Spruill.

“Every applicant is different,” Coles James wrote.

Voting rights have been the primary focus in debates about Virginia’s rights restoration process, but other rights are also involved. People who have had their rights restored also regain the ability to run for public office, serve on juries and act as a notary public. A certificate of restoration also enables formerly incarcerated people to ask a court to restore their gun rights.


by Graham Moomaw, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Virginia environmentalists disagree with DEQ’s Norfolk Southern fine



Virginia environmentalists are frustrated by the state Department of Environmental Quality’s $27,000 fine of Norfolk Southern for a 2020 train derailment.

The derailment caused 16 boxcars to spill almost 1,400 tons of coal into the Roanoke River. The town of Salem’s water plant had to halt intake for about a month over concerns of possible water contamination.

Tim Cywinski, communications manager for the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said the fine is disheartening because it does not deter derailments from happening again. He feels the state failed to take certain things into consideration while determining this fine.

“I think they should have taken into account that Norfolk Southern is one of the biggest and most profitable train and freight services industries in the United States,” Cywinski pointed out. “And to give them a fine that is less than the price of a new car is honestly laughable and just offensive to the fact that it impacted the people and environment of Salem, Virginia.”

Cywinski added that state and federal protections need to be implemented to hold better companies accountable and prevent such derailments from happening again.

Derailments are not uncommon. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were more than 1,100 derailments in 2020, a number which has fluctuated in the few years since.

Since Norfolk Southern first came under fire for a crash involving hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio, numerous railroad safety groups have been working to improve the industry’s safety regulations.

Ann Creasy, acting deputy director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, said new regulations need to go hand in hand with levying appropriate fines against companies to deter future incidents.

“It’s really about corporate accountability of ensuring that safety and workers and proactive measures are invested in on the front end,” Creasy contended.

A bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate called the Railway Safety Act of 2023. The bill aims to boost safety requirements for trains transporting hazardous materials. Hearings have been held and are currently under review by the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

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Feds identify ‘significant’ ongoing concerns with Virginia special education



After failing to meet federal requirements to support students with disabilities in 2020, the Virginia Department of Education will remain under further review by the federal government after continuing to fall short in monitoring and responding to complaints against school districts, according to a letter from the U.S. Department of Education.

“We have significant new or continued areas of concerns with the State’s implementation of general supervision, dispute resolution, and confidentiality requirements” of IDEA, stated the Feb. 17 letter from the Office of Special Education Programs.

The U.S. Department of Education first flagged its concerns in a June 2020 “Differentiated Monitoring and Support Report” on how Virginia was complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act following a 2019 visit by the Office of Special Education Programs.

IDEA, passed in 1975, requires all students with disabilities to receive a “free appropriate public education.”

The Virginia Department of Education disputed some of the federal government’s findings in a June 19, 2020 letter.

State officials says special education is a ‘core priority.’ Parents and advocates beg to differ.

Samantha Hollins, assistant superintendent of special education and student services, wrote that verbal complaints “are addressed via technical assistance phone calls to school divisions” and staff members “regularly work to resolve parent concerns” by providing “guidance documentation” and acting as intermediaries between school employees and parents.

However, some parents and advocates say systemic problems in how the state supports families of children with disabilities persist. At the same time, on June 15, 2022, a state report found one of Virginia’s most critical teacher shortage areas is in special education.

“Appropriate policies and procedures for both oversight and compliance, and their implementation, are crucial to ensuring that children with disabilities and their families are afforded their rights under IDEA and that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is provided,” said the Feb. 17 letter from the Office of Special Education Programs.

While the U.S. Department of Education wrote that it believes the Virginia Department of Education has resolved some of the problems identified in 2020, including resolving complaints filed by parents and creating a mediation plan, it said it has identified “new and continued areas of concern” and intends to continue monitoring Virginia’s provision of services for students with disabilities.

Among those are ongoing concerns over the state’s complaint and due process systems that “go beyond the originally identified concerns” originally found. The Office of Special Education Programs writes it has concluded Virginia “does not have procedures and practices that are reasonably designed to ensure a timely resolution process” for due process complaints.

The department also said it has concerns over the practices of at least five school districts that are inconsistent with IDEA’s regulations.

The decision comes after the U.S. Department of Education announced in November that Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia’s largest school district, failed to provide thousands of students with disabilities with the educational services they were entitled to during remote learning at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Virginia is also facing a federal class-action lawsuit over claims that its Department of Education and Fairfax County Public Schools violated the rights of disabled students under IDEA.

Parents involved in the case said the Virginia Department of Education and Fairfax school board “have actively cultivated an unfair and biased” hearing system to oversee challenges to local decisions about disabled students, according to the suit.

Charles Pyle, a Virginia Department of Education spokesman, said in an email that “VDOE continues to work with our federal partners to ensure Virginia’s compliance with all federal requirements, as we have since the ‘Differentiated Monitoring and Support Report’ was issued in June 2020.”

The federal government said if Virginia could not demonstrate full compliance with IDEA requirements, it could impose conditions on grant funds the state receives to support early intervention and special education services for children with disabilities and their families.

Last year, Virginia received almost $13.5 billion in various grants linked to IDEA, according to a July 1, 2022, letter to former Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow, who resigned on March 9.

James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association, blasted Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration after the findings were released.

“While the Youngkin administration has been busy waging culture wars in schools, his administration has failed to meet basic compliance requirements with the U.S. Department of Education for students with disabilities,” Fedderman said. “This failure threatens our federal funding for students with disabilities and is a disservice to Virginia families who need critical special needs support.”


by Nathaniel Cline, Virginia Mercury

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sarah Vogelsong for questions: Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Apr 8 @ 10:00 am – 4:00 pm
Patriot's Day @ Warren Heritage Society
Join the fun with reenactors, a blacksmith, the outdoor kitchen, our smokehouse, and tours all day of Balthis House. Sons of the American Revolution will fire muskets at 3 pm. Free event for all ages![...]