The federal government has joined more than a dozen former workers in suing Union Pacific over the way it used a vision test to disqualify workers the railroad believed were color blind and may have trouble reading signals telling them to stop a train.
The lawsuit filed Monday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of 21 former workers is the first in what could eventually be hundreds - if not thousands - of lawsuits over the way Union Pacific disqualified people with a variety of health issues.
These cases were once going to be part of a class-action lawsuit that the railroad estimated might include as many as 7,700 people who had to undergo what is called a 'fitness-for-duty' review between 2014 and 2018.
The plaintiffs said nearly 2,000 individuals faced restrictions that kept them off the job for at least two years if not indefinitely. But the railroad hasn't changed its policies since making this estimate in an earlier legal filing, which indicates that the number has actually increased significantly in the past five years. More than three dozen lawsuits have been filed so far, and many more cases are still being considered by the EEOC.
Union Pacific has maintained its robust defense in court and refused to engage in settlement talks with the EEOC. The railroad said it was necessary to disqualify workers to ensure safety because they had difficulties seeing colors or developed health conditions such as seizures, heart problems or diabetes that could lead to them becoming incapacitated. They also said federal regulations require color vision testing.
The suit focuses on a vision test that Union Pacific developed called the light cannon test that involves asking workers to identify a light's color on a device placed a quarter of a mile away from the test taker. The EEOC said in its lawsuit that the test doesn't replicate real world conditions or show whether workers can accurately identify railroad signals.
Some of the workers who sued had failed Union Pacific's 'light cannon' test but passed another vision test that has the approval of the Federal Railroad Administration. The other workers who filed the lawsuit had failed both tests but presented medical evidence to the railroad indicating they didn't have a color vision problem that would keep them from identifying signals.
The workers were able to perform their jobs successfully for Union Pacific for between two and 30 years without any safety problems. The workers represented by EEOC worked for the company in Minnesota, Illinois, Arizona, Idaho, California, Kansas, Nebraska, Oregon, Washington, and Texas.
The UP's attorney, Anthony Petru, said the 'light cannon' test is so unreliable that the railroad's own experts have testified that it would disqualify a quarter of the workers with perfect vision.
Petru said union Pacific disqualified all those workers over these vision tests 'without making the railroad safer in any way, shape or form' because there's no history of UP workers causing derailments or collisions when they couldn't discern between red and green.
The Omaha, Nebraska-based railroad is one of the largest in the United States, with tracks in 23 Western states.