Bus drivers’ sick-out disrupts ride to school for hundreds of Tacoma special needs kids

Hundreds of Tacoma students with special needs were left without a way to get to school this week after some bus drivers didn’t show up for work.

Twenty-four bus drivers called out sick Monday morning, with 26 calling out sick Tuesday morning. Parents were notified via automated calls both days around 6:15 a.m. and encouraged to find alternate modes of transportation.

“Our message to parents (is that) we are encouraging them to find alternative ways to and from schools if they would like to ensure (students) are in school,” said Dan Voelpel, communications director for Tacoma Public Schools.

The district employs 56 bus drivers to transport 750 students with special needs to school. Half of those students were left without service.

The bus drivers who called out sick are not involved with school bus transportation provider First Student, which started contracting with Tacoma Public Schools this fall. First Students provides a majority of the district’s students — about 10,000 — with transportation to and from school. First Student routes are unaffected.

Bus drivers who asked to remain anonymous told KIRO Radio that they were overworked and underpaid. Bus drivers spoke at the Sept. 27 school board meeting following the teacher strike last month, saying they felt disrespected by the district and asking for better work conditions and benefits.

“We’re overworked,” bus driver Sheryl Armstrong told the board. “I have a lot of my coworkers here, you can ask. We’re putting in 10 plus hours every single day. It’s not safe.”

Bus driver Roberta Kilgore said at the Sept. 27 meeting they’re short staffed.

“Since June, five drivers have retired, four others have found better paying jobs elsewhere, and the new subs that we trained last spring have all moved on to other things. ... We want to be the best transportation staff out there, but to do that we need your help. We need more drivers and you’re having a hard time attracting and retaining them with the wages you’re offering,” Kilgore said.

Both the district and the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 286, which represents the drivers, said the apparent sick-out came without a warning.

“UOE Local 286 has learned of numerous recent absences due to illness in the Transportation department at Tacoma Schools. I want to be clear that the Union is not involved, nor does it condone any coordinated unauthorized work stoppage,” union representative Margie Englund said in an email to The News Tribune on Tuesday morning.

The union sent a letter to its members on Tuesday afternoon.

“In the event these absences are not due to illness, but some type of concerted activity, this is in violation of the collective bargaining agreement and you will be expected to report back to work immediately or face possible disciplinary action,” the letter states.

When asked if the leave could be pay-related, Voelpel said it’s possible, but that nothing would be able to be done until the union’s collective bargaining agreement ends in 2020.

“If their union leadership doesn’t know (the reason), we can only guess. We don’t know,” Voelpel said.

According to the union’s latest contract, bus drivers were given a 2 percent salary increase in the 2017-18 school year, and a 1 percent increase in the 2018-19 school year.

The base rate of pay for Tacoma bus drivers is approximately $20.18 per hour. After completion of 9 years, hourly rate increases 2.5 percent.

District staff also doesn’t yet know if sick leave will continue Wednesday. If that’s the case, parents can expect another automated call between 6:15 a.m. and 6:30 a.m.

“We hope our drivers will be at work tomorrow,” Voelpel said.

Allison Needles: 253-597-8507, @herald_allison