U.S. Railroads and the Pitfalls of Systematic Understaffing

The potential strike that the federal government just outlawed does not mean U.S. railroads’ labor problems are over. The root cause is their wrongheaded belief that minimizing staffing is good for their business. The authors’ research and work with service companies shows that firms that operate with some overstaffing and create an operating system that allows workers to do their best are more successful than those who focus on minimizing their labor costs.

U.S. railroad companies’ refusal to grant paid sick leave to their workers has exposed a startling vulnerability in the American economy: Rail staffing levels are not high enough to allow employees to take time off when they are ill. While Congress has intervened to block a strike, the underlying cause of the labor dispute — systemic understaffing — will persist. It’s the product of the companies’ years-long obsession with increasing efficiency and lowering costs, which has resulted in…

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This article was written by Amanda Silver and originally published on hbr.org