Tacoma kids with special needs without rides for third day with 22 bus drivers out sick

Hundreds of Tacoma students left with late service as bus drivers call in sick

On Monday, 24 bus drivers called out sick. On Tuesday, 26 called out sick. The district employs 56 bus drivers to transport 750 special needs students to school. Half of those students were left without service.
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On Monday, 24 bus drivers called out sick. On Tuesday, 26 called out sick. The district employs 56 bus drivers to transport 750 special needs students to school. Half of those students were left without service.

Tacoma students with special needs again were left without a way to get to school Wednesday as 22 bus drivers didn’t show up for work.

Wednesday was the third day in a row that bus drivers employed by Tacoma Public Schools to transport kids with special needs called in sick. On Monday, 24 of the 56 drivers called in sick, as did 26 on Tuesday.

The drivers are protesting their pay and work conditions.

“We are driving short-staffed, doubling, even tripling, our routes to make sure all students have transportation to and from school,” Sheryl Armstrong, one of the protesting drivers, wrote in a letter to a teacher she sent to The News Tribune. “Drivers are fatigued, frustrated and exhausted. Many cry at work on a daily basis.”

Armstrong said the protest was an attempt by the drivers to get the attention of school district administrators.

“We want to be at work but nothing was changing only getting worse,” Armstrong wrote. “We needed to get the district’s attention and it is obvious they weren’t listening to our words.”

The protesting drivers hope the school district will take action to attract and retain drivers so they are at least close to being fully staffed, she told The News Tribune.

One option, Armstrong said, is to reopen the union contract, which runs through 2020. That would take agreement by the school district and the drivers.

Voelpel said the district wouldn’t consider opening a contract that has already been negotiated and agreed to by both sides. Bus drivers were given a 3.1 percent pay increase this year.

“We already gave them a pay raise above and beyond what was negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement,” Voelpel said. “That was a show of good faith on part of the school district that we were not required to give.”

While the protest is taking its toll on parents, Tacoma Special Needs PTA President Susan Leusner said, she supports the bus drivers.

“We have the same respect and gratitude for these bus drivers as we have for our educators,” Leusner wrote in an email to The News Tribune. “I think that our ... bus drivers are desiring the school district to value their hard work as much as the parents do.”

“We are used to facing unanticipated challenges every day,” she continued. “Also, the relationships between our population of parents and the bus drivers who safely and expertly transport their children every day should not be underestimated.”

The union representing the bus drivers, International Union of Operating Engineers Local 286, has not responded to The News Tribune’s request for comment as of Wednesday.

The union was not involved with the sick-out, union representative Margie Englund said in a letter to bus drivers Tuesday.

“IUOE Local 286 has become aware of numerous absences in the Transportation Department of Tacoma Public Schools,” the letter stated. “The Union has not coordinated, nor condones a work stoppage in any way, shape or form.

“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 disciplinary action.”

Some of the bus drivers see where the union is coming from, Armstrong said.

“Some understand the political and financial backlash this would cost our union, so we respect their stance,” she said. “Others, however, are not so understanding.”

The district has not received word from the union about any disciplinary action taken as of Wednesday, said Dan Voelpel, communications director for the school district.

The bus drivers the district employs to transport students with special needs are not involved with First Student, which began contracting with the district this fall and transports the majority of Tacoma students to school.

As for the protesting drivers, “This has been extremely difficult on us,” Armstrong said in her letter. “We love our students and families so it is painful to cause them any suffering.”

Allison Needles: 253-597-8507, @herald_allison