On Thursday morning, after the morning school drop-offs were completed, school bus drivers and attendants from Durham Bus Services gathered outside the bus yard to call attention to the ongoing negotiations between the Teamsters Local 959 that represents the drivers and Durham Bus Services.
“We are trying to show Durham, the school board, and the people of the Mat-Su Valley that we are united and we aren’t going to back down from the issues we are discussing at the bargaining table,” said Patrick FitzGerald of Teamsters Local 959. “Safety is our paramount concern, and the demands for safety improvements have gone unanswered by the company (Durham). This action, and the 98% approval of a strike vote shows we are united as a bargaining unit.”
Several weeks ago, drivers, monitors and attendants with the teamsters voted overwhelmingly in favor to authorize a strike should negotiations fail to reach an agreement. Since then, there have been several meetings between the teamsters and Durham, but no agreement as of yet. The next dates for negotiations are set for Jan 30 and 31.
Dozens of drivers and supporters rallied support as they ask for their safety issues to be addressed. As returning buses and cars honked and waved in support, the bus drivers waved signs, all with the same message: take care of the buses that take care of the children.
“These guys are all here, not getting paid, because this is important to them,” said Kelsey Taylor, a Union representative for the school bus drivers.
“My main concern is safety,” said Jeff Adams, a bus driver who has been driving for 2 years. “I’ve asked 4 times for good windshield wipers. I finally got them today. It’s been hard to see the white lines, and I want to keep the kid safe.” As anyone driving local roads the past few days can attest, the road spray from the melting snow has been an impairment, covering windshields and windows with dirt.
Windshield wipers were just the latest in the list of safety concerns the drivers have been asking Durham to address. Among the biggest concerns the drivers have is getting the buses plugged in overnight.
“Cold starting them are is hard on them. I’ve had one bus break down already,” Adams said.
“Who hasn’t?” added fellow bus driver Dennis Little.
Adams had previously driven for First Student and says that when they held the contract, the bus barn conditions were great.
“They had all the plugs, they had rails lettered for where each person pulls in and where they’re going to be. There are no plug-ins here. They’ve got the electricity running, but they started late, around September,” Adams said, adding that they weren’t even sure if the electricity was running through the whole bus yard yet.
An additional safety issue for the drivers is the lack of heaters in the buses. Taylor explains that buses have to retain a minimum of 45 degrees required by the state of Alaska, in order to transport children.
Another safety concern for drivers is the 2-way radio systems within each bus, which Adams says are horrible.
“If we need help out on the road, they’re either too busy in dispatch or they can’t understand us, we can’t understand them, that’s a big issue of mine,” he says.
At the start of the year Durham sent out buses without working radios, or some which were tuned to the wrong frequency, says Taylor, who says that there were radios, but he couldn’t say specifically
“We had buses on the first day of school that the radios were not there or didn’t work.”
The radios played a part in some of the high-profile mix ups during the first days of school, when some children were on the wrong buses or missed their stops completely.
“It is normal for kids to get on the wrong buses-that is to be expected. Or they’re on the wrong list from the district, that’s to be expected. But when you have a functioning radio, you can quickly make a call and establish where that kid is, let a parent know. In order for that to work, you have to be able to get a hold of somebody, which wasn’t able to happen because they couldn’t answer phones here. You have to be able to call buses on the radio-that wasn’t able to happen, and people were terrified and calling the police.”
Adams, who was in law enforcement in Montana, says that just like in law enforcement, so too for drivers, the radios are a valuable asset.
“The radios is a big thing for me…that’s your lifeline.
There are also mechanical issues on the buses that need to be addressed, according to the drivers who say that often “check engine” lights appear but there is little to no attention to them from the mechanics, and are told to “just keep driving them.”
“I’ve lost about a quarter of my power, so I get out on the Parks Highway and I’m doing 45 when the other drivers are blowing by me. That’s not really a safe situation; you’re kind of impeding traffic,” said Adams.
The buses are issued an electronic tablet in which the drivers are to report issues, if one is available.
“I don’t have a functioning one and I have to fill out paper sheets and have no idea where those go, if they’re even being seen by maintenance,” said driver Zach Miller.
For many parents who are quick to blame the drivers for late arrivals or missed stops dropping of children, both of which occurred multiple times during the beginning of the school year, the drivers would like people to know that they feel the frustration parents feel.
“I’m sure the community is aware that we’ve had delayed buses running all year. Some of the most simple and straightforward solutions, like assigned parking for each bus is something we haven’t been able to accomplish here,” said Taylor.
“These guys are here because they care. They need enough time and the right conditions to go out and make sure the buses are safe to haul my kid,” says Taylor, whose own child lives within the district and uses the bus.
Most of the bus drivers have children and even grandchildren that use the buses to get to and from school, or have driven long enough that the students they once drove now have their own kids riding the buses.
“I’ve seen people working jobs that say ‘you look familiar’ and look at the back of his head (which has a long, white ponytail) and say ‘you were my driver!’’ recalls Little, who has driven school buses for the Mat-Su and Anchorage School Districts for 26 years.
When asked what Durham’s response is when the different concerns are brought to their attention, the drivers say they are told, “Oh, we’ll get on it, we’re working it, be patient.”
“When they get sent out, we’re dealing with late buses almost every day, and it’s because these guys are not being provided the tools to do their job,” Little said.
“We have a lot of kids that are standing outside waiting, and it gets cold out there, we don’t like to see that,” says Miller, adding, “every 10 minutes we’re late, your kid is standing in zero-degree weather for 10 minutes.”
As for any issues or concerns surrounding pay, Taylor says that while not all of the issues the drivers have are economic, it doesn’t escape any of them that entry-level drivers in Anchorage are out-earning drivers in the Mat-Su.
“I can tell you that 35 miles down the road, Anchorage School District’s paying drivers with no experience that goes through training and starts driving on day one $25 an hour, which is significantly more than these guys are getting paid,” said Taylor, who said that Durham’s most experienced journeymen drivers are making $25.13 an hour.
“I don’t think that in this community, school bus drivers are worth any less than Anchorage School District’s school bus drivers, or up in Fairbanks, where starting wages for the same company are almost $27 an hour.”
Recruiting and retaining hardworking, ethical people continues to be a struggle for the district, who has seen a loss of drivers since the fall.
“We’ve lost more than 25 experienced drivers since the beginning of the school year because they take their responsibility seriously and they have to run late, because they’re not allowed, not given the time, they don’t have the tools they need,” says Taylor, who adds that:
“They take a lot of pride in the services they provide the community, the responsibility that they have, and something as simple as they don’t have enough plug-ins for the buses or the heaters aren’t working on a lot of the buses isn’t fair to the drivers or kids.”
Durham Bus Services has not responded to request for comment at this time.
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