School buses keep rolling

Union, First Student reach tentative agreement

Posted 11/2/22

SEIU 1199 New England drivers, monitors and aides announced Tuesday a tentative contract agreement with their employer, First Student, thereby averting an open strike planned for Nov. 2 at 5:30 a.m. …

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School buses keep rolling

Union, First Student reach tentative agreement


SEIU 1199 New England drivers, monitors and aides announced Tuesday a tentative contract agreement with their employer, First Student, thereby averting an open strike planned for Nov. 2 at 5:30 a.m. Last week, the union said they would go on strike to advocate for an increase in wages and hours.

Since June, 275 members of SEIU 1199 New England who work in Lincoln, West Warwick and Cranston bus yards have been working to reach a fair contract settlement with First Student. The union started contract negotiations in June, though the contract expired in August. In Tuesday’s contract agreement, union workers were able to secure a four year contract that provides a fair wage increase and an increase in guaranteed hours. Now that a tentative agreement has been reached, the full membership of SEIU 1199NE bus drivers, monitors and aides will vote to ratify the contract, at which time more details will be available. Specific terms of the agreement were not released.

Frank McMahon, spokesperson for First Student said if the strike had occurred, between 800 and 1,500 students would have been impacted. Cranston Public Schools did not disclose the number of students the strike would have affected.

Workers who called for change described the importance of their work.

Mike McDermott, 62, has been in the transportation industry since age 18. Whether he was seated behind the wheel of a truck or school bus, McDermott has spent his career on the road and now works at Cranston’s Metro Yard.

“I’ve been a school bus driver for 13 years and many of the kids I transport have special physical and behavioral needs that require special accommodations and increased attention. We are happy that First Student was finally willing to come to the table with proposals that will help us better take care of our families and do our jobs. Even before the pandemic, First Student could not recruit bus drivers, monitors to do this work and we are hopeful that better hours and pay will go a long way in attracting more workers to the field. At the end of the day, it’s our students who benefit most,” said McDermott.

On Friday, McDermott said bus driving is a challenging career with many daily changes. A daily route starts with maintaining a tight schedule and completing the bus route efficiently. He said sometimes students will get on the bus right away and other times they may take five or six minutes. Other times, when kids come out of school, they may have had a good day and don't want to leave and it takes awhile to get them onboard. McDermott said when the bus is running a few minutes behind, parents are notified. 

“We cannot rush to make up time,” said McDermott.

McDermott said he has to deal with irate drivers. On Friday, he was at the bottom of a highway exit ramp at a red light and had someone honking and yelling at him because he wasn’t turning right on red. McDermott said buses are not allowed to turn right on red and there are rules the public does not understand. For instance, a buses’ speed is different from the posted speed limit and is monitored by First Student and the state. On highways, a bus can not go over 45 mph and has a 35 mph maximum speed limit on backroads.

McDermott said workers are looking to make a fair day's pay for driving and taking care of students.

“I’m not looking to get rich. I’m looking to keep my head above water,” McDermott said, mentioning the rising cost of living prices.

In the last contract, the majority of First Student bus drivers earned around $450 a week and often struggled to find additional employment due to the restrictive driving schedule. In addition, drivers need a commercial drivers’ license to drive, which can require weeks of often unpaid training and testing.

Wages and hours is an ongoing problem for bus drivers, aides and monitors that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and inflation. Many employees – who are often over 65 years old and are at high risk for Covid – have left the field. First Student has lost 25 percent of 30 percent of its employees over the last 18 months, according to the SEIU 1199 New England’s press release.

McDermott’s statewide route includes picking kids up who attend two Providence schools, one Johnston school and one Cranston school (New England Laborer’s Cranston Public Schools Construction and Career Academy). He thinks bus drivers put parents at ease knowing the same person is picking up their children. The parents get to know the driver and it can be tough when parents see a different driver.

Meanwhile in Lincoln, Lorene Hamel, 58, has worked as a First Student school bus driver for 10 years and comes from a family of bus drivers. Her grandmother owned a bus and her mother – who drove for Lincoln – is now a bus monitor. Right now, Hamel’s route consists of driving students to private schools.

Hamel’s day starts with punching in at 6:05 a.m. Her first pick up is 10 minutes later and she’ll finish her morning route around 9 a.m. Come the afternoon, Hamel will return to the bus yard and punch in at 1:20 p.m. where she then finishes around 4 p.m.

While this is a part-time position, Hamel said bus drivers, monitors and aides need to be available full-time. She said it’s very hard to try to work a job in between those two shifts. If there is a power outage or a bad snow storm where students need to leave school early, workers need to be able to drop what they are doing and pick the kids up to bring them home.

Hamel’s bus driving experience has been a rewarding one. She loves the interactions with students and said the little ones get super excited about everything and you get to see their enthusiasm and watch them grow. This year, Hamel has 15 students assigned to her bus – though that number fluctuates throughout the year with students playing sports.

She said the parents are supportive as well and when Hamel messaged them about the potential strike, they wished the bus drivers good luck.

Hamel said the issue of wages and hours were not new and during last contract negotiations in 2019, drivers and monitors asked for 30 hours and were told no. She said drivers and monitors want the 30 hours so union members know what to expect for a paycheck. She felt that 30 hours would help with retaining drivers since First Student has such a high turnover in staff.

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