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Gresham-Barlow bus operators drive labor dispute with First Student

School district's unionized drivers may strike
by: Jim Clark Bus drivers picket recently demanding better wages and benefits.

This September, more than 5,200 students in the Gresham-Barlow School District will catch a ride on a First Student bus.

But labor trouble between the private company and its unionized bus drivers could mean your child's favorite bus driver won't be there to greet him or her the first day of school.

The bus drivers joined the Oregon School Employees Association in June 2010 and belong to OSEA Chapter 204. The 110 drivers want to collectively bargain a contract with First Student, and are talking about striking if the company doesn't agree to a contract - or at least talk wages and benefits - by September.

Karin Richardson, a union bargaining team member, said the team and First Student officials have met a few times, but First Student 'refuses to talk economics.' She added the union has filed nine complaints against First Student with the National Labor Relations Board.

The Outlook sent several questions regarding the drivers' wages, benefits and safety concerns via email to First Student's company headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio.

However, Bonnie Bastian, company spokeswoman, said the company won't comment on ongoing negotiations and 'the majority of the questions you have asked are a part of our continuing negotiations with the union.'

Union beefs

Four key issues are in play in the labor dispute - wages, sick day policies, bus safety concerns and health benefits.

On average, First Student bus drivers employed in the Gresham-Barlow district for five years or so make about $12.40 an hour, Richardson said. The union would like to increase that wage to between $14 and $15 an hour, she added.

The union also wants First Student to decrease the amount of money employees contribute to health plans, and abolish a policy that punishes employees for calling in sick.

According to Richardson, for every day employees call in sick, they are docked a half-point off a 15-point scale. Employees can be fired once they reach 15 points (30 sick days a year), Richardson added.

It's reasonable for the company to want its employees to show up for work unless they're truly sick, Richardson said. However, because of the points policy, employees are afraid to call in sick because they have no paid sick days and come into work when they shouldn't.

She shared anecdotes of employees vomiting before driving buses because they were ill, but afraid to stay home from work.

'I never call in sick,' added Jennie Seibel, a bus driver.

Seibel said drivers view the points policy as endangering the health of co-workers and the children they transport.

'We think the point system should not even be there,' Richardson said. 'It's terrible, it's ridiculous.'

First Student did not respond to the questions about the policy.

Safe to drive?

Drivers also express concern about the safety and age of the bus fleet, claiming company officials have repeatedly ignored their concerns.

In response, Bastian said 'the average age of a First Student bus is 6.98 years, which compares favorably to the national average of 10-plus years.

'We perform regular scheduled maintenance and ongoing vehicle maintenance checks to ensure our buses are in top running condition,' she added. 'Each of our school buses follows a stringent daily, monthly and annual vehicle maintenance program. In addition, each driver conducts a multi-point inspection prior to beginning each route to ensure the bus is in proper operating condition.'

When read Bastian's statement, Richardson laughed and said some of the company's buses are 20 years old, and that she's been told some repairs can't be made because of the expense.

When asked if the district had any safety concerns, Jerry Jones, Gresham-Barlow's assistant superintendent and chief financial officer, said he was satisfied First Student was a safe company.

He noted First Student reported 16 accidents over the course of 2010-11, all of them minor, and that no children were seriously injured.

He added the most dramatic accident occurred in Woodburn on April 11, when a radiator blew on a bus taking North Gresham Elementary students to Salem on a field trip.

Radiator coolant reportedly sprayed from an engine compartment inside the bus onto some of the students, but they were treated at the scene and none were hospitalized.

Union representatives claim drivers warned First Student the bus had equipment problems, but their complaints were ignored. Jones said he discussed the problem with the company after the April 11 incident, and the company then replaced radiator hoses in several buses, including the one involved in the incident.

Since 1999 the district, Jones added, has contracted with First Student, and 'we've been satisfied with their service.

'I'm satisfied with them traveling more than a million miles a year transporting students,' he said.

He added that neither the district nor the school board will take a side in the labor dispute. He noted the district contracts with other private employers, including a food service company, and doesn't weigh in on negotiations between employees and employers.

Making their case

OSEA field representative Fernando Gapasin said contract negotiations were scheduled June 21-23 with First Student.

However, when union representatives arrived June 21, a First Student negotiator allegedly informed them the company had filed a petition to have the union decertified with the National Labor Relations Board and had unilaterally decided to cancel negotiations.

The union then reportedly informed First Student the company's actions violated the law and that until an election was held to decertify the union, First Student was required to negotiate.

'We also informed (First Student) that until our unfair labor practices complaints were resolved their decertification petition was meaningless and that an election could not even be held,' the union statement read.

The union has filed nine unfair labor practice petitions with the National Labor Relations Board, and has noted the company has since requested a bargaining session.

'It was obvious that First Student understood that they had committed yet another breach of the law,' the union said.

The union added that 'because First Student has refused to bargain economics, the National Labor Relations Board will be seeking immediate injunctive relief for the union' before a federal court.

The NLRB and the union will present their case before a federal administrative law judge Aug. 9-11. In addition, the union and First Student have agreed to federal mediation, which is scheduled Aug. 2-4 in Portland.

Bastian replied to the union's statement by writing: 'First Student has been and will continue to negotiate with the union in good faith.'

Other districts

Some First Student drivers wish the Gresham-Barlow district would ditch the company and handle its transportation in-house. A cursory survey of other East County school districts reveals Gresham-Barlow drivers might get a better deal that way.

For example, the Reynolds School District employs its own drivers, who make between $13.43 and $19.55 per hour, said spokeswoman Andrea Watson.

Meanwhile, Reynolds drivers get nine paid holidays, as well as paid vacation.

Reynolds drivers also get 10 days of sick leave per year, three days of bereavement leave and three emergency days of leave, Watson said, adding the drivers belong to the OSEA.

Centennial School District drivers are unionized and employed in-house, making a starting wage of between $14.60 and $15.79, depending on experience, according to Rick Larson, business director.

'Regular drivers also receive up to $1,130 monthly medical insurance contribution for a fulltime employee,' he said. 'Eligible substitute cover drivers receive up to $565 monthly medical insurance contribution for a full-time employee.'