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Bloomberg's Actions Threaten School Bus Driver Culture That Rewards Hard Work and Makes Children Safer

Photo courtesy of Scardy

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is seeking to cut costs by requesting bids for school bus operations that, for the first time in 30 years, do not contain a requirement that proven, experienced and trained drivers and bus monitors retain their jobs. Over the years, drivers in New York have developed a culture around their profession that rewards hard work and increases safety for children. Now that culture is in danger, reports Al Baker of the New York Times.

More than 8,000 drivers who are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) have responded to Bloomberg by going on strike. If Bloomberg wins, it almost certainly means that experienced and trained drivers will lose their jobs and the children of New York City will be less safe. 

Becoming a bus driver in New York is not an easy task. To qualify, drivers must earn a Class B commercial driver's license and earn special endorsements for passengers, schools and air brakes. To get such a license, they often have to rent time on a bus to practice. This process takes up to six months. 

The schedule drivers keep is arduous and they have to learn and keep updated with numerous work rules designed to keep students safe and get them to school on time. Drivers who are late are fined and while some of the bus companies pay the fines, many drivers end up paying them out of pocket to avoid being disciplined. Experienced drivers with more training are more easily able to understand and comply with these rules and regulations.

The average workday for a bus driver is challenging for most, Baker writes:

In most cases, buses pull out of their depots between 6 and 6:30 a.m., but drivers must get to the yard in time to prepare their buses: Check their brakes and lights, and make sure they are clean and have enough diesel fuel.

Routes can be lengthy, with several going from Staten Island to Westchester County, the location of some special education programs. Two hours can pass between the first pickup and when a driver reaches the school. In the middle of the day are field trips, though they are less frequent in the coldest months. Field trips are assigned, more or less, in a reverse of seniority: Shop stewards hand them out to the newest drivers first, meaning older drivers might enjoy a few hours of downtime in the middle of the day, and if they were lucky enough to pick a route that ends close to home, they could eat lunch in their own kitchen.

The drivers must return to schools for dismissal, usually between 2 and 3:30 p.m., and by the time they finish and return to the depot, it can be 6 p.m. or later.

During the summer, most drivers are technically laid off. Many of them qualify for unemployment during summer school and many have second jobs, even during the school year.

The seniority that Bloomberg refuses to require in new contracts is key for both driver and student safety. In August, drivers choose their routes based on seniority during "the pick." This means that workers who have dedicated more time and energy to the job have the ability to choose routes they are more familiar with, making their job of safely navigating the city easier. 

“The pick means I can go to the same area, all the time, and see the same kids year after year,” said Dawn L. Wensmann, 46, who has been driving a bus for Atlantic for 14 years. “I see the kids and they say, ‘Hey, bus driver, do you remember me?’ and I say, ‘Yes,’ and I do. I watch them grow up. I’ve seen children who’ve been on my bus, and now I see them with children of their own.”

Seniority is also important when layoffs happen. Drivers who have more time in service have the opportunity to have first choice in filling openings at other companies that serve the city, providing some continuity and higher quality service for both drivers and students.

You can support the call for school bus safety by calling Bloomberg’s office at 1-888-833-7428 or texting “Safety1st” to 877877.

For more info and to sign a petition, visit: nysaflcio.org/Safety1st.

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