As dozens of Loudoun County Transit workers remain on strike in a continued dispute with Keolis North America, the private contractor responsible for providing public bus service in the county, the Loudoun County government’s position remains that would be impractical and counterproductive to fine Keolis for service disruptions during the strike. An attorney for the transit union, which has in recent weeks ramped up calls for the county to penalize Keolis, strongly disagrees.
The general counsel for the union representing about 170 Loudoun transit workers adamantly disagrees with the county’s legal position. “I believe that the public statements from the county are disingenuous in the extreme,” Paul Tyler, the general council for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, told the Times-Mirror Feb. 21 in response to a Feb. 16 statement from the county. (A county representative in turn responded that “The County believes that neither Keolis nor ATU has acted in bad faith.”)
One clause in the 133-page contract states that “All missed [bus] trips are subject to Contract Deficiency Deductions,” referencing another section of the contract that lays out a series of financial penalties if Keolis fails to meet a series of specific criteria for providing service. The clause immediately follows two paragraphs that specify that Keolis “shall not be reimbursed or otherwise compensated for service not provided as a result of work stoppage” or other union action. Tyler argued that this and other provisions of the contract gives the county “the absolute right to levy fines on Keolis … for not doing its job.”
Tyler emphasized that the union is not asking the county to intervene in the contract dispute, which is between a private company and its employees. “Legally speaking, the county has no obligation to the union,” he said. “We’re not asking the county to intervene on our behalf, we’re not working with the county to rescue these negotiations. All we are asking is for the county to assess the fines that Keolis has incurred so far.”
He added, “We believe that the county has been harmed by Keolis’ bad faith actions, that the county has the legal right to impose fines.”
Local 689 President Raymond Jackson insisted during a Feb. 17 phone interview that the county can and should fine Keolis for routes missed because of the strike. “What needs to happen is the county needs to stop lowering the level of service that Keolis is required to put out,” he said. During a rally outside the county government building the previous day, Jackson said the union would mobilize opposition to sitting board supervisors in this year’s election if they did not pressure county administrators to take a harder line with Keolis. (Four Democrats on the board of supervisors have received campaign donations from the ATU.)
Statements from the county administrator’s office in response to questions from the Times-Mirror suggested that, in theory, the county may have the legal right to fine Keolis. “The County does not necessarily disagree with the attorney’s comments regarding the contract,” according to Feb. 22 email from county spokesperson Glen Barbour. “He is correct regarding the fines.”
Barbour added, however, that “the County believes it is not practical to levy fines in this situation because the amount of the fines would exceed the total value of the contract within several weeks. The County believes the provisions for fines in the contract are not designed to address a major service disruption caused by a labor action such as a strike.”
A previous statement from Barbour said that the provisions in the contract related to financial penalties “assume that Keolis is properly staffed and operating under normal conditions.” Barbour emphasized that the county only pays Keolis for the bus routes it completes, meaning that the reduction in service during the strike “is a loss of revenue for the company.”
Barbour maintained in a Feb. 16 email that the county government is not directly involved in negotiations between Keolis and the union representing the transit employees. But, he wrote, “Loudoun County officials are actively talking with representatives of both Keolis and the drivers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), in an attempt to help resolve the impasse.”
Status of the strike
Keolis employs about 170 union-represented workers as part of its Loudoun County Transit contract, according to the company. Another 20 employees are not represented by a union. Transit union employees include drivers, both with and without commercial driver’s licenses, mechanics, technicians and other jobs.
At least 74 union members remained on strike as of Feb. 17, a union representative told the Times-Mirror. This roughly correlates with the company’s assertion that about 80 union-represented employees continue to work on any given day, despite the ongoing strike, in addition to non-union employees.
While the county acknowledges that the strike has “severely impacted” bus service, many routes continue to operate. Keolis has said previously that it is prioritizing paratransit routes, used by people with disabilities, and many regular local routes have also continued to operate.
Before the pandemic, nearly 4,000 people per day used the commuter bus service, more than 1,000 people used local fixed-route buses, 1,800 people used transit to Metrorail stations and 60 people used paratransit services. According to a September 2022 report, local-bus ridership before the strike had rebounded to pre-pandemic levels but commuter ridership had fallen 77% and Metrorail-bound ridership had fallen 86%. An average of 47 people per day were using paratransit service.
Keolis took over operation of the county’s transit services in April 2021 after it beat out six other bids to win a five-year, $101 million contract. Ninety-five percent of Loudoun’s transit workers voted a year later to recertify their representation with the ATU, and the union and Keolis have been negotiating a new contract since late last summer. Amid those contract negotiations, 96% of local union members voted in November to authorize a strike.
In October, the county administration offered an additional $4.5 million to fund potential increases to the transit contract, and the county could add up to $6 million to the contact to fund higher wages and benefits, according to Barbour. County administrators don’t need approval from board supervisors for a contract adjustment of less than 25%, Barbour said, adding that no formal changes to the transit contract have yet been made and any additional funding relies on Keolis and the union agreeing to terms.
Union members continue to claim that Keolis “lowered wages” by offering less robust health insurance plans than had been available to employees previously. Keolis adamantly denies the plans are less robust. As of press time, the union has not provided the Times-Mirror with specific evidence regarding their claims about the insurance.
Current Keolis offer
The current contract offer from Keolis would give all union members a 10% wage increase retroactive to July 2022. “This would amount to a lump sum payment of approximately $2,000 to $3,600 for each employee, depending on employee job,” according to a Keolis representative.
The company would pay 80% of health insurance premiums for family plans and from 75% to 90% for individual plans. “The industry standard ... for transit, is a 75/25 split, and we’re offering better than that,” Keolis Vice President Mike Ake told the Times-Mirror Feb. 17.
Keolis would match contributions to 401k accounts of up to 5% of an employee’s wages. Currently, 401k contributions are matched up to 2% and some transit employees had no option for matching 401k contributions before Keolis took over operations, according to Keolis representatives.
An hourly $26 entry level wage is proposed for local fixed-route bus drivers, which will increase by 4% in each of the next two years. These drivers would earn a maximum $31.36 per hour after four years of employment. Ake said that these drivers were earning about $16.50 per hour before Keolis took over operations; the union has not disputed this characterization.
An hourly $26.40 entry level wage is proposed for commuter-bus drivers, which would increase by 4% in each of the next two years. These drivers would begin earning a maximum $40 per hour after four years of employment.
Keolis had previously offered a $2,000 bonus to each union-represented employee had the union ratified a similar offer by Jan. 27. That ratification bonus is not included in the written offer currently on the table.
Union leadership has not put any contract offer from Keolis to a membership vote, according to union representatives.
Some union demands are ‘nonnegotiable’
Both sides have acknowledged that transit employees, especially fixed-route drivers, were underpaid before Keolis took over operations “On the fixed route side, the day we took over, we gave everybody a dollar-an-hour increase in anticipation of a [collective bargaining agreement] negation,” Ake said. “We had to hire drivers, so we have to be competitive,” he added, emphasizing that the $16.50 hourly wage then earned by fixed route drivers was significantly too low.
But the devil remains in the details. Jackson said two union demands in particular remain “nonnegotiable.”
First, he said, Keolis should pay into an employee’s 401k while no matching contribution from the employee. “This country did away with pensions and tricked everybody into 401ks,” he said, arguing that 401k account should only exist “to be a supplement plan for your pensions.” Keolis’ current offer would include up to 5% matching 401k contributions. “All we’re asking,” Jackson added, “instead of giving me a 3% increase, take that 3% and put it in a 401k, but don’t ask me to match.”
Second, he said, all bus drivers with a commercial driver’s license should be on the same pay scale; drivers of commuter buses are currently paid more than drivers of smaller, local fixed-route buses. He dismissed Keolis’ assertion that driving the bigger commuter buses to and from Washington, D.C., should warrant a higher wage. “Do not belittle the skills of my members with that nonsense,” Jackson said.
Keolis is currently offering a maximum hourly rate of $36.31 for local-route drivers and $40 for commuter-bus drivers. Jackson said that he is especially concerned about raising the maximum wage for drivers, arguing that Loudoun will lose drivers to transit systems in Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria and Washington, D.C., if Keolis doesn’t come back with a higher offer.
“The citizens in Loudoun County should be worried, because if you have a driver who is willing accept the offer they have now, it’s going to be the bottom-of-the-pit driver,” Jackson said.
Transit workers represented by ATU Local 639 in Prince William County, where Keolis also operates the bus system, have been on strike since Feb. 13. Their demands, including pay increases, better health insurance and retirement plans, are similar to that of their counterparts in Loudoun.
Stay updated Daily updates about service disruptions are posted at loudoun.gov/buschanges. Residents may also sign up for service alerts at loudoun.gov/busbiz.
Notice the only one not happy here are the union wonks not a single resident has chimed in on facebook or twitter or on these pages!
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