By William Kibler
July 10, 2021
Norfolk Southern furloughed 86 employees at the Juniata Locomotive Shop of Friday, with the jobs of 14 additional jobs eliminated by attrition.
The layoffs drew the ire of state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona.
“I think Norfolk Southern is nothing but a bunch of southern-fried asset strippers,” he said. “These executives can sit in their plush corporate offices in Norfolk and Atlanta and obsess about their next quarterly earnings report while 86 of my people have to go out and look for jobs.”
They’re “fake tough guys who buckle at the knees when one of their Wall Street paymasters looks sideways at them,” Schmitt said. They’re unwilling to “cut half a penny off their record-setting dividends to keep my people employed.”
Norfolk Southern spokesman Jeff DeGraff said in a release the layoffs are “part of our long-term business plans to evolve our operations to best serve the needs of our customers. … We remain committed to the region and (to) serving the needs of our customers.”
The job cuts bring the shop’s complement down to about 400.
“I think it’s time a serious discussion was had with Norfolk Southern about the future of these Juniata Shops and their commitment to the people of Pennsylvania,” Schmitt said. “Their track record doesn’t give me a lot of confidence.”
Steve Plazek, a carman and president of the local Transport Workers Union at the shops, was one of those laid off.
“It’s all corporate greed,” Plazek said. “They continue to slash manpower to fill their pockets.”
The company’s financial reports are good, Plazek pointed out.
Recent financial results have been aided by “productivity gains achieved through the successful introduction of Precision Scheduled Railroading,” which has enabled the company to “rationalize” its locomotive fleet, the news release stated.
That has led to the Juniata cutbacks, indicated J.D., a machinist who still has his job, on Friday. He didn’t want his full name used to ensure against management retaliation.
“The company is always bragging about how much money it’s making,” J.D. said.
Thirty-one people were laid off in his craft, plus 32 electricians, plus batches in other trades, he said.
He enjoys his job, but could be bumped due to seniority rules that come into play with layoffs.
The company plans to “work with furloughed employees on opportunities to apply for open positions elsewhere in our system,” DeGraff wrote.
“We appreciate the hard work and commitment of all the men and women on the Thoroughbred Team,” DeGraff wrote.
Local elected officials have been discussing with Altoona Blair County Development Corp. how to help, state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, said.
A “rapid response team” will work with PA CareerLink to assist with retraining likely to be part of the deal, she said.
Plazek, who will be eligible for unemployment compensation through the special Class 1 railroad program that also provides retirement benefits in place of Social Security, will need to look for another job.
He’s 50, “not a good age to try to start over,” he said.
He has transferable skills, and could probably find something in construction, but isn’t likely to match the standard of living he now enjoys with wages of about $60,000 a year, he said.
He will need decent medical coverage, because his wife is on lifesaving meds that otherwise would be unaffordable.
“I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” he said. “Move on.”
But it’s a disruption, he said.
The company could have kept the shop workers busy if it hadn’t decided last year to contract out 75 of the 100 locomotives that it is converting from DC to AC power — giving only 25 locomotives to Juniata, he said.
The company said it wanted the warranties that came with the outsourced work.
The 25 locomotives that the Juniata workers were assigned are being completed about now, after about eight months, he said.
The laid-off workers found out Friday morning as they were prohibited from entering the gates, Plazek said.
That didn’t happen to him, because he’s on second shift, and a first shift employee texted him a picture of the posting that included his name, he said.
He’ll need to arrange to be escorted back into the shops at some point to reclaim his possessions.
“It’s a sad day,” Ward stated.