Former Stock drivers say they are paying the price for whistle-blowing
'Every time I see a bus, it's like a dagger going into me because I knew I did everything right'
Two former Stock Transportation drivers say they were "heartbroken" to lose jobs they loved after refusing an order to drive beyond the allowable time limit. But they say they're happy that the provincial regulator used their information to crack down on the company that ordered them to break the law.
"We said it from the get-go — we've got to do something," Kelly Bishop told CBC News about a decision by her and co-worker Andrew LePage to blow the whistle on the company.
In a decision issued Thursday, Nova Scotia's Utility and Review Board slammed Stock, the province's largest school bus operator, for running a charter service without a licence and a series of other infractions.
"Somebody has got to know about this," Bishop said. "For the UARB to come out with that type of ruling tells us that what we did was exactly what we should have done."
Bishop and LePage now drive buses seasonally for Ambassatours, as well as work for a local courier company outside tourism season. But both said they would rather have their old jobs back carrying children to and from school.
"Every time I see a bus, it's like a dagger going into me because I knew I did everything right," said LePage, tears welling in his eyes.
Bishop swallows hard before sharing similar thoughts. "It causes a fury of emotions even a year later that you just want to sit down and cry."
The pair had put their jobs on the line at a rest stop in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., after they said they were told by their bosses to be at the company's Dartmouth depot by the next morning.
The order came after Bishop and LePage, along with 31 other Stock drivers, were returning from the Thunder Bay, Ont., area, where they had recently dropped off a load of the company's buses — a trip that involved about 29 hours of driving over a few days.
But the order to return that quickly, they said, would have meant exceeding the legally allowed driving limit for all those on the bus. Federal legislation outlines clear limits for commercial drivers in regards to both on- and off-duty time, rules enforced by the provinces.
Company officials eventually relented and allowed the drivers their mandatory overnight rest period. But that was the last time LePage and Bishop drove for the company.
Both refused to hand over their log books to the company, as ordered, at the end of the trip. Instead, they said they photocopied the pages detailing what happened and handed them over to the regulators.
Both testified at a hearing called by the Utility and Review Board on Jan. 30 and Feb. 1 to deal with eight charges against Stock Transportation, including some infractions related to the company's actions on that Northern Ontario-to-Nova Scotia return that led to the showdown in Quebec.
"That was quite a nightmare," said LePage. "Right away, when I seen that demand, I knew this was impossible, what [they] were expecting from us."
"We knew what was happening at the moment was wrong," said Bishop. "We wanted everybody to know what was going on."
On-duty vs. off-duty
During the UARB hearing, the company characterized it as a misunderstanding of the rules. Managers thought the drivers who were passengers on the bus ride back were off-duty at the time and could therefore relieve drivers who were nearing their on-duty limit of 14 hours.
But the law is clear that simply resting on a bus seat cannot be considered off-duty time.
The board sided with Bishop and LePage's version of events.
In a written statement issued Thursday evening, Stock's chief operating officer, Terri Lowe, put much of the blame on former regional manager Troy Phinney. She said Phinney no longer works for the company and hadn't for several months.
"His actions described in the report were not fully known to our management team," Lowe said of Phinney. "This appears to be an isolated incident with a manager with complete disregard for company procedures and operating regulations."
Phinney now works for First Student, which bills itself as "the largest provider of student transportation in North America."
Stock said it had also made other changes in its Halifax office, as well as at head office in Toronto, with a focus on improving safety. She said employees are encouraged to report any concerns they have and "the company would never retaliate against employees sharing concerns."
But LePage said he is convinced the problem runs deeper.
"There's a lot of talk about [safety] but implementation doesn't happen the way they make it look like it happens," he said. "And I honestly think because there are parties that are still [with the company], you're going to have the same problem going on."
He said he thinks provincial and federal agencies should be keeping a closer eye on the school bus industry.
"It's evident that a company like Stock seems to believe they're above the law."
The company is preparing a written response for the UARB that will spell out the company's plan to rectify the many deficiencies uncovered during the investigation and subsequent hearing earlier this year. The board has given Stock until Nov. 30 to file that report.