Roughly 900 city school bus drivers and attendants voted to authorize a strike Wednesday night after rejecting a proposed contract from management, DNA Info first reported.
Six hundred school bus routes in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island could be affected, union leaders said.
An “overwhelming majority” of the school bus workers who voted — 85 percent — chose to authorize the strike, Teamsters Local 553 said. The school bus workers are employed by Jofaz Transportation and Y&M Transit, which are both located on Coffey Street in Red Hook and reportedly share the same owner and same union contract. Neither company could be reached for comment yesterday or this morning.
The strike could happen as early as next Tuesday, Local 553 said. The drivers and attendants’ current contract extension expires this coming Monday. After the workers’ contract expired in June, union leaders decided to extend the contract twice, saying that they hoped to reach an agreement without impacting students. (Local 553 is one of two dozen Teamster local unions in the New York City area, and says that it represents 120,000 workers.)
The City’s Department of Education (DOE) contracts with Jofaz and Y&M to transport special education and general education students. “We are disappointed with this outcome,” said DOE spokeswoman Devora Kaye, but added that “we have contingency plans in place–either a MetroCard for students and families or alternate bus service–to ensure transportation options.”
The DOE said that parents would be contacted directly in the event of a strike. Children with disabilities would receive special accommodation and have the option of taking a car service to school.
“We expect this to be resolved soon with an agreement that works for employees, families and students to ensure a safe and reliable ride to school,” Kaye added.
Low Wage — But Important — Work
According to Local 553, school bus drivers at Jofaz and Y&M are currently paid $17.50 an hour (equivalent to a $35,000 annual salary if working full-time); while attendants make $10 or $11 hourly (equivalent to a $20 – $22,000 annual salary). Some drivers and attendants are able to work year round, but many do not get work over the summer recess and collect unemployment benefits.
Workers receive health care via a union managed fund, along with 15 paid holidays but no paid sick days, Demos Demopoulos, the Secretary-Treasurer of Local 553, told us by phone last night.
In the offer rejected by workers Wednesday night, management proposed that bus drivers and attendants give up five of their paid holidays, saying that the City of New York now requires employers to offer workers five paid sick days. According to Demopoulos, the union considered the proposal despite the fact that other bus companies were not asking workers to give up paid holidays because of the new City law.
Workers like Lisa Cilone, a Jofaz school bus driver, balked. “To say I shouldn’t get holiday pay for Thanksgiving, or for MLK Day, just because I called out when I was sick? That is so disrespectful,” said Cilone.
Demopoulus told us that management then said it would not allow workers to determine which paid holidays would be lost, causing further frustration.
According to Demopoulos, Jofaz and Y&M have also proposed that workers begin to contribute to their health coverage, making a weekly payment of $10 to $20.
At the same time, the two companies are not paying enough money into the union’s welfare fund to maintain the health benefits that drivers and attendants currently have, Demopoulos charged.
“These are the workers that we entrust with the safety of our children, but starting wages for school bus attendants aren’t much higher than minimum wage,” said Demopoulos. “To increase the healthcare costs for these workers, many of whom are single mothers, is patently unfair. And it does not exist in any of our other contracts.”
Demopoulos maintained that the union and workers were caught off guard by Jofaz and Y&M’s current offer. When the most recent negotiations took place at the end of September, he said, it seemed that an agreement had been reached that all parties could accept.
“We’re not looking for a strike,” Demopoulos said. “I’m ready, willing and able to talk…but time is running out…This is going to be devastating. I know it can be avoided.”
“We are willing to strike to get justice for these school bus workers, but we hope it doesn’t come to that,” he added.