New York, NY – School bus companies in New York City and Long Island are on the brink of collapse after some school districts in both areas refused to fulfill their commitments to honor contracts last week.
Fulfilling the contracts would have paid drivers through June after the COVID-19 pandemic led to a statewide shutdown and students being schooled remotely.
“The companies had a contract with the city that ended on April 30th,” said Mike Cordiello, the president of ATU Local 1181. “The city didn’t let the companies know whether they were going to extend [the contracts] and they canceled the vote at the Panel for Education Policy [PEP] meeting.”
PEP members are education watchdogs that oversee both education policy and budgets.
On April 29th, a PEP meeting was held, but the agenda to discuss school bus contracts was not brought to a vote, therefore rendering 16,000 bus drivers, mechanics and attendants without a job or benefits in the interim. Due to technical difficulties during the conference, it was rescheduled for May 7th.
Many PEP members thought it was unreasonable for their districts to pay upwards of $700 million towards school bus companies for May through June when there will be an education budget cut totaling $827 million and consider the lapse contracts a relief for the their school districts.
Further making matters worse for school bus drivers was a letter by Comptroller Scott Stringer to DOE officials saying, that upholding the contracts was “contrary to all sense of fiscal prudence.”
The school bus companies had a contract that the DOE would pay at least 85-percent of the daily fees in cases of emergencies or school closures, but Stringer has evoked that agreements with a “force majeure” clause could be nulled.
“There are 16,000 workers without work, and I represent 7,000 of them,” said Mike Cordiello. “It’s terrible. I have members that were being treated for cancer and members that need insulin, what are they going to do?”
The bus drivers and school attendants were still having their pensions and insurance paid up until the lapse in the renewal of the contracts, according to Cordiello. Health insurance payments were due May 1.
“We are still waiting for the city to make a decision, because they didn’t make one,” said Cordiello.
The bus drivers don’t want to be idle, according to Cordiello. They have even expressed interest in delivering school technology, learning tools and food to students. While City Council Members, Senators and Assembly Members have support the bus drivers’ initiative, city and state officials did not give them an answer on that possibility.
During the early days of the pandemic, before the schools were shutdown, bus drivers were still working are now sick from COVID-19 from as far back as mid-Feb to mid-March when they were in operation, according to Cordiello.
“Hundreds of our members caught the virus, many got sick and subsequent to that, we believe that 10 to 20 of our members died from the virus,” said Cordiello.
The matter of honoring contract is not simply about wages and benefits, but retaining workers and managing overhead costs in order to have the school bus system up and running in a moment’s notice, according to Cordiello.
“How do we get back to work,” said Cordiello. “Four months is not enough time to train 16,000 people with the new social distancing in place. You can’t just turn us back on and expect us to be a service.”
Drivers and attendants won’t be able to work if they won’t have their state and city certifications by September; the buses might not work if mechanics are not there to maintain; bus companies that don’t own their lots outright won’t have a place to store buses and the insurance for the buses and the lots will lapse, according to Cordiello.
Debra Hagan, the president of TWU 252 and a former bus driver, shares Cordiello’s sentiment.
Hagan represented nearly 220 of the bus drivers in Oceanside in L.I. but there was a total of 1,400 employees that with other unions.
At least 40-percent of the school districts in L.I. paid and understood the importance of keeping the bus drivers on standby, and at least one of the school districts utilized the bus to send equipment and food to students while using PPE, according to Hagan.
Hagan knows that schools are under dire straights too, but the federal stimulus checks that the schools received to maintain their workers extended to their contracts with school bus drivers. As a result, the bus companies that the schools are going to need in the coming months might close down.
“The schools still received their funding,” said Dan DeCrotie, president of Teamsters Local 1205.
After the non-vote for the school bus contracts, Acme Baumann, a bus company that had been in L.I. for 51-years, closed its doors and temporarily laid off 900 bus drivers, and Hagan believes many more will have no choice but to follow suit. It is unlikely, that if their contract is renewed that they all will be rehired.
“We are hearing that others are might go under,” said Hagan.
DeCrotie agrees, there is a possibility that other bus companies might close, but Baumann’s also had other issues before the pandemic hit.
“The Baumann’s were not reinvesting into the company, they were fighting among themselves, and my opinion is that they used this shutdown to get out of the business,” DeCrotie. “I’m sure the school districts not paying bills, but it seems to me and the employees at they are draining everything in the company.”
Seniors made up a portion of the employees, because many wanted to continue being independent or make up for a lack of pension from a previous career, according to Hagan. She suspects that some would simply retire as oppose to waiting until September in hopes of being rehired.
“They can’t just keep going by without having their benefits,” said Hagan. “There was a shortage of bus drivers to begin with, and now some of the other drivers might look for employment elsewhere.”
In the past, Baumann had an additional 10-percent of spare bus drivers on the bench, according to DeCrotie. Before the pandemic, there were no spare drivers and some were doing double duty in case another driver wasn’t available.
Unlike MTA bus drivers, school bus drivers have much higher standards to adhere to for their CDL because they are managing children, according to Hagan.
To get their commercial driver’s license, modern school bus drivers have to be able to drive the school bus; lift 120-lbs across 50-feet in case of an emergency; be able to fix the interior and exterior of a bus; be capable of using an epi-pen; monitor children on buses without attendants; secure wheelchairs and be prepared to take care of children that might be prone to seizures or severe allergies.
“If they are laid off or furloughed for more than 30 days they will have to go through a recertification process before they are able to drive these buses,” said DeCrotie. “Every driver and matron has to take two refresher classes twice a year. It’s very involved. I drove tractor-trailers for years and the requirements are more intense for bus drivers. They are transporting the most precious cargo there is.”