The dispute between Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission bus drivers and their parent company, Keolis North America, is getting weirder.
Keolis is RTC’s contractor for transportation services and has been in a battle with bus drivers who say the company is putting their lives at risk due to inadequate COVID-19 protections for drivers.
Keolis representatives said today the company’s general manager, Abul Hassan, is under investigation but would not say why. Readers tipped off This Is Reno about Hassan’s termination.
“Keolis is currently conducting a thorough investigation with a third-party and will be able to provide additional information once the third-party has completed its investigation,” said Rachel Gattuso, a local public relations professional who was recently retained by Keolis. “At the moment Keolis has installed an interim project manager for operations to ensure services remain uninterrupted.”
Andrew Barbano, spokesperson for the bus drivers’ union, Teamsters Local 533, said he was told “drivers are breaking out the confetti and getting ready to dance in the streets” in the wake Hassan’s termination.
“Based on our long experience and the way Mr. Hassan handled his job, we saw only two possibilities months ago: He would learn how to deal with organized labor, or he’d get fired,” Barbano said.
Arbitrator quits case after dispute over in-person hearing
An arbitrator in the dispute between the two parties just withdrew from the case. This came after finding Keolis violated the collective bargaining agreement with the bus drivers.
The arbitrator, James Merrill of California, said both parties “need to focus on the real issues and not baseless accusations.”
At issue is whether Keolis is properly following state and federal guidelines and requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In particular, bus drivers allege riders have been coming onto buses without masks. This Is Reno has been reporting on the dispute since June and has been provided evidence that this is occurring. Drivers, the union alleges, are powerless to stop them.
The union in September sued Keolis, prompting criticism by city councilmembers about COVID-19 restrictions not being enforced on buses. The National Labor Relations Board in November ordered Keolis to provide COVID-19 safety information to union members.
“In the meantime, [Keolis] continues to threaten to discipline Union members who refuse to let maskless riders board Reno’s public bus system,” a union attorney more recently alleged.
Keolis accused Merrill of refusing to hear the case at a scheduled March hearing.
“The arbitrator refused to participate in the hearing and has since withdrawn,” Gattuso said.
But Merrill said Keolis’ allegations were baseless “and lacking in factual support.”
Keolis wanted an in-person arbitration. Merrill, citing COVID-19 precautions, offered to attend the hearing via video.
“I accepted [Keolis’] proposal to conduct an on-site hearing with the option of the arbitrator participating via video conference,” he wrote in a letter to both Keolis and the union’s attorneys.
Keolis accused Merrill of bias in favor of the union for refusing to attend the hearing in person.
“The arbitrator’s refusal to attend an in person hearing because of concerns for his personal safety reveals his personal bias in favor of the alleged employee issues that the union will argue,” Keolis’ attorney, Thomas Mandler, alleged.
Merrill, in response, said, “My actions in this case thus far are to ensure the safety of all parties as well as myself. I am following the county guidelines as well as considering issues with airline travel, hotel stays, availability of restaurants and other challenges during the pandemic. I disagree that [ensuring] safety of the parties is evidence of personal bias of the alleged employee safety issues.”
Keolis representatives cited a Reno Justice Court order as “persuasive authority of in-person hearings.”
That order, however, issued in November, uses the Truckee Meadows COVID-19 Risk Meter to justify whether the court may re-open to in-person access if the Risk Meter falls below the “very high” threshold. The order focuses solely on the court, not outside entities.
The meter is in the high range, and the Reno Justice Court remains closed. The November order shows hearings will be conducted via video, “unless the Court specifically orders otherwise on a case-by-case basis.”
Jeremy Smith with the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency, which helped develop the risk meter, said the risk meter was only intended to be informational, not necessarily used for policy recommendations.
“That was not our intent,” he said. “But we never said to anyone, ‘never do this.’ Really, it’s informational for people to assess their own risk. We wanted have the best information available for residents.”
The union attorney, Matthew Gauger, also expressed displeasure with Merrill.
“He kept this case open for over six months while the employer objected to a video hearing,” he wrote. After granting several continuances and giving the employer all the process it was due, Merrill set the hearing for March 5 in an order dated Feb. 9, 2021. On Feb. 17, 2021, Merrill quit.”
Gattuso today said the union “has agreed to in-person hearings and recently participated in an in-person arbitration.”
Bob Conrad is publisher, editor, and co-founder of This Is Reno. He has served in communications positions for various state agencies and earned a doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno in 2011, where he completed a dissertation on social media, journalism and crisis communications. In addition to managing This Is Reno, he holds a part-time research appointment for the Mineral County University of Nevada Extension office.