Tacoma school bus drivers will vote for a fourth time Wednesday (Jan. 18) on a new contract with Durham School Services — the private company that Tacoma Public Schools pays to transport an estimated 6,000 students each day.
The drivers, represented by Teamsters Local 313, have repeatedly turned down offers from the Illinois-based company. The union has agreed to extend the contract, which expired this month, as negotiations continue.
Union officials did not return a message left at their office Tuesday.
A group of Tacoma-based Durham drivers has formed an independent group, Drivers for Decent Health Care and Safe Students. They say they’re not speaking for the union, but they want the public to know that their main concern isn’t wages, but health care coverage.
Drivers have formed an independent group, Drivers for Decent Health Care and Safe Students.
Right now, they say, their health coverage is skimpy. A disclaimer printed on the first page of the driver insurance policy that took effect Oct. 1, 2015, notes that the insurance plan “does not qualify as minimum essential health coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.” The ACA, also known as Obamacare, is now facing possible repeal by Congress.
An explanatory letter attached to the policy booklet also states that the plan is intended as supplemental insurance, not primary coverage.
Durham spokeswoman Molly Hart said that the ACA doesn’t require companies to offer full coverage to part-time employees. She said Durham drivers are part time — though some may pick up additional shifts from time to time.
Drivers say they have difficulty finding health care providers who will accept the insurance, which pays, for example, $60 toward a doctor’s office visit, and $600 per hospital admission.
“They usually flip the (insurance) card over a few times and ask ‘Is this insurance?’ ” said Mary Smith, a member of the Decent Health Care group.
She said drivers usually work between four and six hours a day, 180 days a year. She said a day’s work can involve a three-and-a-half-hour shift in the morning and another three hours in the afternoon. The scheduling can make it difficult for drivers to obtain a second job — although some work as school playground supervisors or cafeteria workers to make ends meet.
What keeps people around is that they have built relationships with their students
Mary Smith, bus driver
Drivers also have raised questions about hourly pay rates. Some drivers who have contacted The News Tribune, but asked not to be identified for fear of losing their jobs, accuse Durham of skimping on promised raises.
In 2015, Tacoma Public Schools amended its contract with Durham to “provide an increase in the wage rates for contractor bus drivers of $2 an hour.” It also said the increase would mean the minimum entry level wage would be no lower than $16 an hour, and the average would be at least $18 an hour.
Drivers say they interpreted that to mean they would receive an additional $2 per hour, on top of an increase they had already been promised. But Durham later notified them that the initially promised raises and the new funding would give them a combined increase of $2 an hour.
Rosalind Medina, who oversees transportation for the school district, said in an email: “From our perspective, Durham has met the requirement of the addendum. I cannot speak to Durham’s agreement or bus drivers’ expectations from Durham, as we are not privy to their negotiations or agreements.”
Smith said school bus drivers are required to have a commercial drivers license, pass drug screening and background checks, and have periodic medical exams. They must maintain order and keep as many as 60 students in their seats — while paying attention to the road.
“It’s not just driving,” Smith said. “You have to have strong people skills. What keeps people around is that they have built relationships with their students.”