Bus drivers from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 who went on strike on Jan. 11 hope the Board of Supervisors will jump-start stalled contract negotiations.
Driver Sandra Vigil told the board on Tuesday that when Keolis North America was awarded the Loudoun County Transit and Commuter Services contract in 2021, they cut company 401k contributions from 6% to 1%. She said worker health care premiums increased from what was paid under the previous contractor.
“These people have taken from us,” said Vigil who was hired in 2015. “We ask you to do whatever is necessary. We want to go back to work. We want to be able to transport our passengers.”
Lisa Saunders, a paratransit driver hired in 2014, said Keolis pays low wages and offers substandard benefits. She said workers are treated harshly and there have been repeated safety violations.
Saunders said the company isn’t following Americans with Disabilities Act safety policies and she was hospitalized due to a work injury. A union news release said Keolis violates federal labor laws at a “staggering pace” and the National Labor Relations Board has found merit to at least four unfair labor practice claims filed against Keolis in Loudoun. Saunders said the drivers substituting for the strikers aren’t certified to cover the paratransit lines and she’s worries about the safety of passengers, some of whom use wheelchairs.
“We want to do our best for our community and we need your support to end this strike,” she said. “Loudoun County can modify the contract to make sure we are paid a fair and livable wage and have affordable benefits and a means to retire. You also have the power to hold Keolis available for the halt in service.”
Keolis spokesman Justin Thompson said in an email that the company has always provided healthcare benefits comparable to the local market and offers four different health plans that pay between 75 to 90% of the premiums for individual coverage and at least 75% for family coverage. He said final contract offer includes:
- A $2,000 ratification bonus if a new contract is ratified by Jan. 27.
- Contract ratification would give all employees a 10% wage increase retroactive to July amounting to a lump sum payment of between $2,000 and $3,600 per employee depending on their job.
- Increasing the company 401(k) match up to 5% from the current 2%.
- An additional holiday on Juneteenth which would increase annual paid holidays to eight.
“Keolis is committed to providing safe and reliable service for our passengers who rely on transit,” Thompson said. “We look forward to finalizing a contract that supports the well being of our employees and their families with comprehensive benefits and competitive wages.”
On Wednesday, there was no commuter bus service, but most local bus routes and paratransit services as well as the Loudoun County Courthouse shuttle were operating on regular schedules, according to the county. Silver Line bus service wasn’t running.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which began in 2020, caused a steep decline in county ridership as many riders worked from home. However, ridership began increasing in May, according to a report to the board in November. There are 49 routes operating commuter bus service with an average of 918 daily riders, which is 23.2% of the pre-pandemic ridership.
The ATU has about 200,000 members nationwide, including 140 in Loudoun. ATU Local 689 spokesman Matthew Girardi, said Keolis made a “last, best, and final offer” on Jan. 12 which the union rejected, saying it was insulting. He said the company offers “subpar” benefits compared to comparable companies in the D.C. Metropolitan area.
“We’re not seeing workers getting the dignity the deserve,” Girardi said in an interview. “We are talking with them (the board) to get Keolis back to the table.”
In an interview, Vigil noted Keolis’ French parent company SNCF has an infamous history. The company’s rail line deported 76,000 Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust which the company admitted in 1996. Alain Leroy, the CEO of SNCF America, told the Atlantic Magazine in 2014 that the company regrets assisting in the Holocaust, but it had no choice since it was controlled by the Nazis and the Vichy French government which collaborated with the Nazis.
The company’s role in the Holocaust became an issue in 2014 when Keolis bid on contracts in Maryland. The Maryland legislature passed a law requiring that companies receiving government contracts in Maryland that participated in the Holocaust pay reparations to American Holocaust survivors or their families. The company agreed to pay reparations later that year.
Strikers on Thursday outside the Transit depot in Leesburg again called on county officials to intervene in contract negotiations. Van driver Israel Shamir said he was hired by Keolis in November and earns $24 per hour. The maximum pay rate is $33.41 per hour which a driver has to work 12 years to earn, according to Troy H. Barnes, a union organizer. Shamir said he can't afford to live in Loudoun so he commutes daily to Loudoun from Vienna.
Shamir said he works about 52 hours per week, but each day is a split shift from 4 or 5 a.m. to 9 or 10 a.m. and from 2 or 3 p.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. Because of the distance from his home, Shamir said he often sleeps in his car between shifts or trains for his CDL (Commercial Driver's License) so he can drive commuter buses, which he isn't paid for.
"It's hell," Shamir said of his schedule. "I'm not getting a whole lot of sleep."
Shamir said Keolis is more interested in profits than the welfare of their worker and the safety of riders.
"Management is supposed to be about solving problems," he said. "They aren't even trying."