UPDATE, Dec. 2: The bus driver's union and Keolis on Nov. 30 reached a tentative agreement to end the transit strike. Union membership Dec. 2 voted to ratify the proposal. Drivers are scheduled to return to work Saturday, Dec. 4.
As of Nov. 29, union bus drivers have been on strike for 56 days during the last four months, leaving many local commuters scrambling for alternative ways to get to work, school and medical and other appointments.
After first walking off the job in August for 10 days against the Regional Transportation Commission’s contractor, Keolis, over attempts to cut their long-standing union contract, drivers went on strike for another 25 days beginning in late September .The latest sticking point is pay increases: Keolis has offered a 12% raise spread out over three years; the union is holding fast for a 17% pay boost over that same period.
While some residents have access to cars or can afford to rely on taxis or ride-share services, the burden of the strike has fallen on commuters who are already struggling financially. The strikes have particularly been a burden for many families with children, disrupting their parents’ schedules and – in some cases – making it harder for kids to get to schools.
That’s what happened to the three children of a Reno family of immigrants from the Congo.
Expensive rides to school
Marilyn Johnson, a volunteer for the Northern Nevada International Center, who has been helping the family adjust to life in the U.S. for about two years, said the strikes hit after the Washoe County School District eliminated the bus route that three of the students used to get to high school and elementary schools. The district, citing a shortage of bus drivers, cut some routes that served children who live less than three miles from their schools.
“The family lives 2.8 miles from Reno High School,” Johnson said. “…It’s been rough for them and others who live in their neighborhood. Many of those parents don’t have cars, nor do they have friends who can drive them to school. That whole area (on South Virginia Street near the Peppermill Hotel-Casino) has a lot of refugees who have trouble coping with that loss of the bus route.”
The teens were using RTC bus passes to get to school; a method that often involved long waits at bus stops. Then the strikes periodically eliminated that option. Johnson looked into getting taxi or Uber ride coupons from RTC, but “somehow they didn’t seem to be eligible.”
The ‘most vulnerable’
Both parents work at Reno hotel-casinos. Their eldest daughter, 18, works at a hotel on weekends and uses her earnings to pay for taxi or Uber rides for herself and her two siblings. The round trips cost the family about $30 a day, a $150 per week expense.
“These are kids who want to be in school,” Johnson said. “They do not want to miss a day. They can walk the three miles, too, but in cold weather, that’s not the best option.”
“The strikes hit the most vulnerable people. They are the ones who are really suffering… The family (from the Congo) spent 17 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania before they came here. They are such hard-working people, such good people; we shouldn’t be making things harder for them.”
– Marilyn Johnson, a Reno volunteer who helps refugees.
When told of the family’s situation last week, an RTC spokeswoman said the agency would reach out to them and offer ride coupons to the teens. (UPDATE: On Dec. 1, RTC officials made arrangements for the students to get free taxi rides to and from school during the strike.)
‘Best and final’ offer
The current work staoopage began Nov. 9, when nine out of ten union members voted against Keolis’ latest offer as part of negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, said Andy Barbano, spokesman for the Teamsters Local 533. The proposal was described by Keolis as its “best and final” offer.
No formal negotiations have taken place since then, Barbano said. But on Nov. 29, a spokeswoman for the bus contractor said the company has been “working on outreach” to union representatives.
Meanwhile, commuters have been doing what they can to cope with the strike.
Mike McCraven, a Reno resident who has used bus transportation for the past 20 years, has been walking 7.5 miles to get to work during the three rounds of strikes. He has been relying on bus transportation since he was in high school. The on-again, off-again bus service caused by the strikes has thrown his commute into chaos. “It has made a very visible impact,” he said.
Four routes active
The agency keeps four of the area’s major routes on the road and commuters must check the RTC website daily to check on the frequency of those routes. It also has offered alternative services to riders, including RTC ACCESS, Uber emergency ride vouchers, and free cab rides. But many residents who don’t have cars and previously relied on the bus routes remain dependent on taxi service, ride-shares or asking friends, coworkers and neighbors for lifts.
RTC ACCESS, remains a separate service for people with disabilities and is not available to all passengers during the strikes. Another option for transportation during the strike includes RTC FlexRIDE, a microtransit service that runs in various parts of the community, including new contingency zones in Sparks, Somersett-Verdi, and Sun Valley. Maps and details about that service are online.
Joan, who did not want her last name used, has used alternative services during the strikes.
“Pickup and return trips were delayed,” Joan said, referring to the times she had tried using the service during the first and second strikes. One of her return trips with RTC ACCESS took three hours. That’s not feasible, she said.
Joan has been unable to pick up her medications in over a month, and canceled veterinary appointments that included blood work for her cats when the third strike began.
Walking to work
Kain Hollis, 24, who has been using RTC’s bus services for the past year, opted to walk when the strikes first started in August. “I didn’t want to use (Uber emergency ride) vouchers,” he said.
Uber’s ability to get riders to appointments on time is unpredictable, he noted. In the past, he said, he has requested an Uber ride only for it to be canceled a few minutes before his designated pick up time. “I was waiting for half an hour,” Hollis said.
The Uber emergency ride voucher that RTC provides also is limited. Residents who decide to use the voucher are offered 10 rides with a maximum cost of $20. A person who works five days a week will exceed the 10-ride limit, and rides can cost more than $20 if traveling more than eight miles.
Many Reno residents rely on the bus routes to get to work, and some said they have lost their jobs due to the ongoing strikes. Hollis said a coworker at his job quit because she could no longer rely on the buses.
“She couldn’t show up on time,” Hollis said. That worker was unable to secure rides late at night and had to walk 3 miles home after her shift ended at 2 a.m.
Both Hollis and McCraven said they are the lucky because they have been able to get to work while nearly all routes have ground to a halt. “There are … people out there who aren’t able to rely on the resources I’ve been able to rely on through all this,” McCraven said.
Hollis also is aware of other people who are at risk of losing their jobs due to the unreliability of public transportation.
Shots on the picket line
While residents continue to struggle, so do the union workers on strike.
“You either strike, or get bullied out of work,” said the daughter of a Reno bus driver, who said her parents fear of being harassed by fellow union workers if her dad returns to work. Drivers receive $200 a week in strike pay, she said, and her family has had to apply for rental assistance.
Tensions are rising. On Nov. 19, union workers picketing the main bus station on Fourth Street in Reno were shot at with BB guns. Four out of the six members who had been picketing were hit by pellets, but none was seriously injured. Police are investigating the incident, Barbano said. Keolis, he said, has been sending emails to striking workers urging them to accept the company’s latest salary offer.
Meanwhile, commuters are dealing with the strike one day at a time. Residents interviewed for this story said they were caught unaware on the first day of each of the three strikes and had to quickly rearrange their transportation plans.
“It makes it really impossible for people to plan around it,” McCraven said. “That’s kind of infuriating.”
NOTE: RN&R editor Frank X. Mullen contributed to this report.