While 12,000 students found alternative ways to get to school, Seattle school bus drivers picketed outside bus lots, saying their health care benefits are too low.
Olivia Moore sees the same kids every day on the yellow school bus she drives to and from Seattle’s Montlake Elementary and Washington Middle schools. She and her riders are close. One girl is mercilessly bullied, and eagerly tells Moore if she’s had a good day or not when she steps on the bus. When Moore was diagnosed with basal- cell carcinoma, another young girl gave her a card.
Moore, 26, doesn’t qualify for the health-care plan offered by First Student, the bus contractor for Seattle Public Schools, because she can’t get enough hours. So instead, she makes appointments at community health centers.
She cited her health as one reason she joined the picketing Wednesday for the one-day strike called by Teamsters Local 174, the union that represents 400 Seattle school-bus drivers. The Teamsters announced the strike Tuesday after contract talks with First Student stalled.
“I want to get this (cancer) taken care of so I can be there for my kids, whom I love to death, and I want to make sure they get to school safely and they have someone they can approach if they ever have any issues,” said Moore.
First Student “supports and cares deeply about employees,” a First Student representative said in a prepared statement sent Wednesday afternoon. He added that the company offers competitive pay and benefits.
But on the picket line outside a bus lot in South Park, bus drivers told stories of having to declare bankruptcy, pay for expensive medication out of pocket or live paycheck to paycheck.
They say First Student promised last year to negotiate health care and retirement plans, but has not. The two sides appear far from an agreement.
Meanwhile, families of about 12,000 Seattle students scrambled to get their children to school without their usual yellow-bus service.
First Student is in the first year of a three-year contract with the school district, which is worth at least $27 million a year. Bus drivers are paid between $18 and $25 an hour, and drivers who work 30 hours a week or more are eligible for health- care benefits.
Moore said she works just under 30 hours a week. Hours are based on seniority, and she’s only driven for two school years, so she’s low on the list. Her annual income is too high for her to qualify for Obamacare.
Some drivers who do qualify for the health-care plan said they still can’t afford it, and those who can said it doesn’t provide much beyond a doctor’s office visit.
Dana Bland, 63, has driven buses in the Seattle area for 30 years. First Student, he said, has had the worst medical plan of the several contractors he’s worked for — but he wants to work in Seattle, and that means working for First Student.
But his health-care costs have gone way up. In the early 1990s, he said, he paid only $250 for a weekslong hospital stay when he worked for Laidlaw Education Services. (Seattle contracted with Laidlaw for 30 years, until 2002, when it went with First Student and Durham to save money; both were nonunion operators at the time.)
In 2013, while working for First Student, Bland had to file for bankruptcy because he couldn’t afford his medical bills after a four-day hospital stay.
Earl Johnson, 65, qualifies for the First Student medical plan but said the deductible is more than $6,000, so he pays out of pocket instead.
All the drivers said they remain with First Student because they enjoy their jobs. More than half have worked in Seattle for a decade or more.
Scramble for parents
Without bus service Wednesday, families throughout the city dealt with the strike by arranging rides with other parents, taking the day off, even using ride-share services like Uber.
Catherine Stine, in response to a Seattle Times call out, wrote that her son, Dawson, 14, was excited to ride his longboard to Hazel Wolf K-8 STEM School in North Seattle with a friend instead of taking the bus.
Jeff Legge said his wife had to take a break from work to take their daughter to her after-school program.
“It’s causing working families to leave work early (and lose money) he wrote. “I can’t just put my kindergartner on a (Metro) bus.”
But he and other parents said they support the drivers.
Pegi McEvoy, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations, said the district received few complaints or concerns from schools or families about the strike.
At least one bus did run Wednesday; a bus driver crossed picket lines in South Park and drove through a line of striking drivers around 7:30 a.m. One person jumped on the vehicle hood to avoid getting hit, Teamsters spokesman Jamie Fleming said, and union members were shaken, but uninjured.
“(The driver) has the right to do that, but they don’t have the right to drive over people,” Fleming said.
Seattle Police Department spokesman Patrick Michaud said officers are investigating the incident.
The drivers will be back on their routes Thursday, but the union says future strikes are possible.
Pricey startup costs
First Student was the only contractor to respond when the Seattle school district sent out a request for bus- service proposals last year.
Several vendors initially were interested, McEvoy said, but didn’t submit proposals citing expensive startup costs, especially those associated with finding land for a bus lot.
Many large school districts in the Puget Sound area contract for school-bus services, but the details aren’t public so it’s hard to tell whether their wages and benefits differ from what First Student offers. Chris Kemper, First Student senior director of corporate communications, said the company’s health-care benefits are standard in the bus-contractor industry.
Other districts provide and coordinate their own buses. In districts like Bellevue, Kent and Shoreline, drivers are paid between $20 and $26 per hour, depending on years of experience, and are eligible for health benefits if they work 20 hours a week or more, according to district contracts with unions representing the drivers. King County Metro Transit bus drivers’ starting wage is $22 per hour and includes medical benefits.
In Seattle, the Teamsters and First Student reached a contract agreement last year but the union says the two sides decided to delay discussing health-care and retirement benefits for one year to give First Student time to settle its contract with the school district.
Last year, the Seattle School Board considered offering health-care benefits to drivers who work 20-29 hours per week but decided against that because it would have cost an additional $1.7 million per year.
First Student said it brought additional funding for health-care and retirement plans to the bargaining table in the past few weeks, but union members said it wasn’t sufficient. Neither side provided specific numbers.
The school district said last month that it intended to seek damages of $1.2 million from First Student in the event of the strike, and McEvoy said the district may still consider that.
For now, McEvoy said, the district hopes the one-day strike provides impetus for the two sides to come to an agreement.
On Wednesday evening, Teamsters spokeswoman Fleming said no meetings have been scheduled yet, but “both sides are ready to go back to the table and talk.”