Bus drivers and other union employees are again taking aim at their employer — Keolis North America — for a new grievance.
This time, they say, Keolis, the Washoe County Regional Transportation Commission’s bus contractor, locked out one of their members from a room she needed to pump breast milk for her baby.
A demonstration today was promoted as a “milk run roadshow.” A union spokesperson said they filed federal charges against the company for allegedly violating federal law.
Union member Athena Duffy said it was difficult to get a private location to pump breast milk.
“Right now I’m just pumping whenever,” she said. “Accomodations were not made in a timely manner. As soon as [I got in touch with my union representative] things started moving along a little bit.”
A Keolis spokesperson disputed the union’s allegations.
“The inaccurate story that the Union is portraying is a sad example of their continued inability to negotiate on the facts,” said Keolis’ Jenny Fahlbush. “The specific example the Union recently referenced was an isolated incident involving a missing key on the day the mother was trying to access the room for her lactation needs.
“The Union is trying to use the exception to prove the rule,” she added. “This was already addressed with the Union via standard grievance and mediation processes. In a bad-faith attempt to influence our … negotiations beginning next week, they are rehashing resolved matters.”
Today’s protest, which brought about two dozen people to the Washoe County administrative complex on Ninth Street, is the latest in a series of issues the union members have had with the France-based company, especially since the start of the pandemic.
The union battled with Keolis last year for what they said were inadequate precautions to deal with COVID-19 — in particular, not enforcing mask mandates for all riders. Union members got sick with the coronavirus disease as a result, the union alleged.
Litigation and negotiations have also been fraught with allegations being tossed around by both the company and union.
Keolis, early this year, accused an independent arbitrator of favoring the union because he allegedly refused to attend an in-person hearing out of concern for COVID-19.
“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.
Negotiations between the union and company begin next week. The multinational company has contracts across the U.S. for transportation services. Other places have had problems with the company.
Last month in Virginia a strike was threatened for a pay and benefits dispute.
Reno City Council member Jenny Brekhus, who attended today’s protest with Council member Devon Reese, said she would like to see Keolis’ contract with RTC ended.
“This is just the latest in how RTC’s contractor has not respected the critical human rights needs of these drivers,” she said. “I can’t believe this is what’s going on at RTC.”
RTC did not respond to a request for comment.
Fired GM hits back
“They are in material breach of a multitude of contracts.”
The company also said it fired its general manager, Abul Hassan, earlier this year. Hassan said he did nothing wrong and said, in turn, Keolis is in breach of contract.
Hassan told This Is Reno he authorized a contract with his wife’s company, Pulse Consulting, to help Keolis deal with issues related to the pandemic, such as sanitizing buses during the pandemic.
“As the general manager I had absolute authority to initiate contracts as I saw fit for the ultimate benefit of keeping Keolis profitable and RTC services whole,” he said. “When Keolis went scrambling in May of 2020 begging the RTC to cut service, I filled the void by facilitating the creation of an LLC that kept our [Teamster] members employed, served to do job creation, and calmed the waters during a time period when everyone wanted to find a rock and hide under it.”
Hassan also pushed back on the notion he was fired and was being investigated by the company. He said he was a contractor for the company. A company spokesperson said, however, he was an employee.
“They are in material breach of a multitude of contracts,” Hassan said. “This is not a situation where they terminated an employee. This is a situation where there is a contractual breach by Keolis because they chose to take a unilateral action and end the terms of the agreement with the LLC.”
Keolis’ spokesperson said an investigation was ongoing but would not say why.
“Keolis has concluded the formal investigation; however there are a number of outstanding items we are working through that we must finalize before we can provide any further update,” Fahlbush said. “It is important to reiterate that as a policy Keolis does not comment on personnel matters. Therefore, much of the outcome of this investigation may remain confidential based on this policy.”
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.