Seattle school bus drivers batten down for long strike

KOMO News photo

SEATTLE - A school bus drivers strike extended into its second day Friday as the driver's union and Seattle Public Schools contractor First Student remained deadlocked.

About 12,000 students rely on First Student buses for transportation to school. The strike has meant children and their caretakers have to find another way to make it to class.

Teamsters Local 174 announced the strike on Tuesday after rejecting the latest contract offer from First Student. The dispute centers on health care benefits offered to drivers and their families. After a one-day strike on Nov. 29 to protest a newly adopted health care plan the Teamsters called "substandard," the union and First Students negotiated through the holidays on a new deal.

Kim Mingo, First Students's senior director of human resources and labor relations, said she believed the company agreed to pay 80 percent of drivers' health care premiums, but that plan was voted down by an overwhelming majority of the drivers at a Jan. 6 vote.

Teamsters spokeswoman Jamie Fleming told SeattlePI Thursday that coverage for drivers' families had been the sticking point.

"They made a proposal that at first blush sounded good, but then once a clarifying question was asked about family coverage ... (First Student) unequivocally said that no, family coverage was not included in the deal that they proposed," Fleming said. "At that point, union leadership told them this is not going to pass a vote of the membership."

On Tuesday, First Student offered a plan that included health care for drivers' families, but only if those drivers were full-time employees. That would cover just 22 drivers from the 2016-17 school year.

Mingo said drivers have the opportunity to become full-time employees. Fleming disagreed, saying the nature of the job makes it difficult to work 40 hours per week. Drivers work split shifts, driving students to school in the morning and from school in the afternoon. Some pick up hours in the middle of the day, but most work 25-30 hours per week because it's the most they can get, Fleming said.

"Drivers with seniority can pick up shifts in between, but there's not enough work to make all drivers full-time employees," she said, adding that the drivers just want the same kind of benefits they would get by working directly for a school district.

According to First Student's Mingo, there are "a lot of other driving opportunities" to activities, sporting event and field trips, as well as charter work.

Health care disagreements between bus drivers and subcontractors are nothing new, according to Jerry McMullen, general manager of Durham School Services, which handles buses for Tacoma Public Schools. There hasn't been a work stoppage in the 9 1/2 years the company has handled that district's transportation, but he labeled the conflict "the nature of the beast."

McMullen acknowledges that the nature of the job makes it far more likely that drivers are part-time employees. He said he wished part-timers could get affordable health care for their families -- Durham offers pay-up options that are cost-prohibitive for most part-timer drivers -- but that cost usually gets pushed onto taxpayers.

Drivers employed directly by school districts have better benefits, McMullen said, but that's why more and more districts are outsourcing that work.

"That's part of the reason why they subcontract the work, is because they can't afford to pay the drivers all the of the benefits that typically go (with a school district job)," McMullen said.

First Student won the Seattle Public Schools contract last year after the district chose to outsource its transportation services to cut costs. The district could have pushed for First Student to offer more health care options for its drivers, but a December 2016 report from Seattle Superintendent Larry Nyland advised against it after estimating it would cost the district $1.7 million.

First Student's contract with Seattle Public Schools is worth at least $27.2 million during the 2017-18 school year.

The Teamsters said drivers will continue to strike until a deal is reached. That might be a while. Fleming said morale is high after Thursday visits from Seattle City Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda, as well as representatives from the MLK County Labor Council and other labor representatives.

Seattle Public School teachers are planning a walk-out after school Wednesday as a show of solidarity, but First Student isn't showing any signs of breaking. On Thursday, Mingo called the company's latest offer "more than fair," adding that around 50 drivers crossed picket lines to drive their normal routes on Friday.

"First Student has been bribing drivers to cross the picket line," Fleming said. "We are extremely disappointed that this company would choose to spend its money destroying morale within its workforce, rather than investing that money in health care that its employees and their families need to live."

"We recognize the inconvenience this will have on Seattle families and appreciate your patience," Seattle Public Schools said in a statement, adding that the district's transportation officer would notify families if a driver was available for certain routes.

For now, thousands of Seattleites are feeling the strike's impact.

"I would imagine it's probably an issue for every school district in America," McMullen said. "It's a national problem. It's not a Seattle problem or a Tacoma problem. They're just having to deal with it now in Seattle, but it's all over the country."

---- is a media partner of KOMO News. Read the original story ...

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