LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — "These drivers are coming to work on a daily basis in fear of their lives and in fear of taking the disease home to their families," said ATU Local 1637 President John Foster.
Standing behind him, a group of drivers so fed up, they showed up in force, determined to be heard from a distance of six feet apart.
"We’re the ones that move this city. And everybody is just looking over us and ignoring us," said Union Steward Sandra Adams.
The drivers we spoke to represent both and say they’re having the same problems.
For starters, they says the buses are dirty.
"That bus can be out on route 20 hours before it even gets back to the yard," said Foster, adding that only then does it get cleaned by a contracted janitorial service.
"(MV and Keolis) are telling us the bus is clean and sanitized but when a driver gets on you got a trashcan full of trash," Foster explained. "You go in the back--there’s trash in the back of the bus."
Drivers say they have to pick up the slack with their own personal disinfecting wipes, adding that they're only issued one pair of gloves per 8-hour shift.
As for hand sanitizer, Marlis Bowsky says, "They gave us one bottle of sanitizer when this first started."
And it’s not the gallon jugs you might expect, but the small travel-size individual bottles.
"That’s it!" said Bowsky. "And then they told us after they gave us that that we couldn’t get refills and we couldn’t get another bottle."
Drivers say Keolis offered refills for a time but they’ve since run out.
Neither MV nor Keolis would agree to an interview. Both sent statements saying drivers are properly protected with gloves and sanitizer. Some were given masks too.
Marc Perla, Keolis Transit general manager of Las Vegas operations, said, "Masks are hard to get; we received 500 masks from the RTC which have been distributed to operators and employees, and we have an order placed which should be delivered by the end of the week. We are working with our procurement teams around the world to access stockpiles of masks and other PPE which will be distributed as soon as they are available."
MV wrote, "We have been closely following CDC guidelines for PPE and up until last week they have not indicated face coverings were necessary for transit professionals, although our staff has always been allowed to wear their own if they wanted to. With that guidance now changed, we have placed a national order for over 600,000 face masks and the Las Vegas supply of 140,000 masks will arrive today to ensure the staff is well-covered."
"Today?" Foster said incredulously when Darcy Spears read him the statement.
"Did they know you were coming out here today?" he asked.
When we told him they did, he responded, "Ok, that’s why."
Foster believes it all comes down to one thing.
"It’s money over safety."
But some other safety steps have been taken.
Riders now enter buses through rear doors as part of an effort to eliminate close contact between drivers and customers.
But even that’s not always possible.
"Drivers have to hook up wheelchairs," which Foster explained involves a four-strap system that requires drivers to touch those passengers and the wheels of their chairs.
"We suggested to RTC that the Paratransit vans pick the wheelchairs up from the bus stop."
Foster says Paratransit is better equipped to handle passengers with disabilities, but that "RTC wasn’t in agreement with it."
In their statement, Keolis said they must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. General Manager Marc Perla wrote: “We understand that securing passengers in wheelchairs in this uncertain time is a challenging situation. We are working with members of the disabled community and drivers to resolve the issue.”
"This is stuff that’s brought up on a weekly basis and we get the same answers—we're gonna look into it." Foster said.
He says the number of passengers allowed on buses keeps changing and social distancing is impossible.
And there’s something else you might not think about. What do drivers do during the shutdown when they need to use the bathroom?
With so many businesses shuttered, drivers say there’s often nowhere to stop along their routes, which presents a particular problem for the female drivers.
"I was in tears," said Ellen Brown. "My back was hurting."
"I drank a half a bottle of water in an 8-hour shift because I’m scared to drink because you don’t want to have to use the bathroom," added Marlis Bowsky.
Union Steward Sandra Adams said, "When we address this with the company it’s always, “I’m looking into it. We had drivers that had to go behind buildings—females going behind buildings or wherever they can find to stop and use the restroom. But they’re 'looking into it.'"
MV says, “We identified specific locations in the community where our operators are able to use the restroom."
Marlis Bowsky's experience has been, "Either the stores are closed or they tell you that you cannot use their bathrooms or they put an 'out of service' sign on their restrooms so that you can’t use it."
MV said, "In the event they are not able to secure the vehicle or need additional time, they are authorized to call in for relief and we have additional relief coaches that are able to take over their route for them."
But Bowsky says that hasn't worked out on her shift.
Keolis said, "We are staging auxiliary operators with a car at key locations where we know routes have limited bathroom access. When a bus operator needs to use a bathroom, he or she can swap with the auxiliary operator and take the car or a spare bus to a known bathroom location. Drivers are also allowed, under any emergency condition, to stop at locations along their route after notifying dispatch. With the RTC, we have reviewed the option of providing port-a-potties, but there are major concerns with both the cleanliness and security issues that they would pose for drivers. We meet weekly with representatives of the ATU to review our procedures, discuss issues they may have and work on mutually agreeable solutions."
Drivers say their experience does not reflect that statement. Ellen Brown says the auxiliary car was only available for one day.
They say safety is compromised as well because night bus routes in particular have "turned into a homeless shelter."
"You have the essential people that are trying to go to work can’t get on the bus because we’re the homeless shelter now," said Adams. "We got people throwing bricks at the bus because they can’t get on."
RTC wouldn’t answer any of our questions, deferring to the contractors instead.
The way the union sees that?
"They’re sweeping it under the rug."
Drivers tell 13 Investigates they’ve reached out to local, state and federal lawmakers, but that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears.
We're going to see what we can do to get them some answers.