As Rhode Island schools began to reopen after initial COVID shutdowns, among the health and safety concerns and protocols that came with it was another crucial problem: there weren’t enough bus drivers to bring kids back to the classroom. Still in the midst of the pandemic and several union negotiations later, the shortage persists.
“People are leaving,” shares Secretary Treasurer and Principal Officer Matthew Taibi of Teamsters Local 251. “People aren’t going [into the industry] because of the typically low-pay work and fairly high qualifications.”
Teamsters 251 represents over 1,000 school bus workers within the state of Rhode Island, from cities and towns throughout the state and from three different companies. Taibi explains that the issue was already present before the pandemic, but COVID exacerbated the problem faced by many underpaid yet essential industries, and presented unique challenges, too. “Actually, the beginning of [2021 was when] we saw the issues that COVID laid bare. The issue of virtual days, like individual day layoffs, became more so than usual,” says Taibi.
“School bus drivers have sort of planned-in layoffs – holiday weeks and summers and things of that nature – so they work 36 or so weeks a year typically. That’s always a challenge, knowing that you’re laid off a chunk of the year and you have to split shifts,” Taibi adds. “It’s also part time and especially with all of the requirements that are involved, the critical nature of the job – taking care of our kids – it’s a lot of responsibility and typically not a lot in the way of pay.”
Prospective school bus drivers must go through a formal training program and first earn a passenger endorsement, then a bus driver endorsement. In Rhode Island, the typical training course is rigorous and takes six to eight weeks, with a minimum of 14-20 hours of practice behind the wheel before they are allowed to transport students.
The rigorous and time-consuming requirements and relatively low pay are barriers to those considering entering the field and the reason for many current, qualified drivers finding alternative sources of employment in a post-COVID world, jobs where they’re not facing the added health risks. In an effort to raise wages and ensure safe working conditions, many drivers are seeking revised contracts and turning to unionizing.
Bus drivers from First Student’s numerous locations, for instance, have been bargaining to gain fair contracts for several months. In Bristol-Warren, a contract has been ratified and in Scituate, Pawtucket, and Portsmouth, contracts have been pre-ratified, which means workers have ratified contracts listing the minimum of what they would accept, and First Student must respond with agreement to those conditions as a minimum.
School bus workers at Durham School Services in Smithfield voted overwhelmingly to unionize in 2020. After bargaining for over a year, Durham workers in Smithfield have reached a tentative agreement with the company for fair wages, hours, and working conditions as of January 2022.
In Providence, First Student bus workers have had a contract since 2018 after a labor strike, but their contract expires in June of this year and there is pressure on First Student to avoid another labor dispute.
Teamsters 251 also successfully advocated for new transportation legislation in the state of Rhode Island that became law last year. “We set out to change the law in Rhode Island – and we did – which called for a 180-day school calendar that is paid for school bus workers, as well as a prevailing wage statute, which still hasn’t been determined yet,” explains Taibi.
“There are some other things in the law that passed that aren’t that relevant to bargaining, but that were beneficial to the workers, but it’s issues like the 180 days that need to be in the revenue contracts or revenue agreements between the school districts and the vendors and the companies. The existing contracts didn’t have that; that was one of the issues and there wasn’t a requirement or funding to have that be put into place under the law.”
Teamsters 251 has also called for the funds allocated to the state and to municipalities from the American Rescue Plan Act to be used to close funding gaps and address issues faced by bus workers.
Progress is slow, but steady, and though the lack of bus drivers has caused grief for families and students, it’s also exposed underlying issues facing the essential industry as all parties seek to reach agreements.
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