The wheels on Anne Arundel County school buses are rolling once again in Maryland after a proposal offered drivers pay increases and bonuses, but concerns remain about broader issues for drivers’ benefits and work conditions.
After a two-day strike by drivers contracted with Annapolis Bus Co., workers shared their experiences with Maryland County Executive Steuart Pittman on a Zoom call Thursday.
While Pittman said his reaction to the proposal was “hallelujah,” some drivers aren’t as enthusiastic about Schools Superintendent George Arlotto’s plan: $7.4 million to boost drivers’ wages next year by $5 an hour, in addition to $2,000 signing bonuses to hire new drivers, and a $2,000 retention bonuses for existing drivers.
Some drivers voiced wage concerns directly to Pittman.
Janell Conner said other driving jobs make up to $32 per hour. She pointed out that drivers might not be retirees driving for supplementary income, as some might imagine.
“It’s not a Wawa job,” Conner said. “I have a 19-year-old son who makes more money than I do. It’s a professional job.”
When Pittman responded to Conner’s concerns about wage by pointing out how the raises will help, Conner said: “I think, not to interrupt you, but I think a lot of people see that on paper and are like, ‘Wow, that looks great. You know, $25 an hour, that’s a great job.’ But when you realize that we only work six hours a day at 180 days a year. No, it doesn’t.”
Conner said drivers don’t get paid for holidays or summers off unless they claim unemployment benefits.
Other drivers raised concerns about general treatment of workers.
Edwina Royster, who works for Annapolis Bus Co., said she’s an injured driver, but hasn’t received workers’ compensation. She said she lost her housing and is living out of her car.
“I’m just trying to find my way, to figure out what is going on, so I can take care of myself and my 16-year-old daughter,” Royster said.
Pittman asked to follow up with Royster separately to “see what we can do to get you connected to some help.”
“Your story is the reality of when jobs don’t pay a livable wage, and then you lose them. There’s nothing to fall back on,” Pittman said. “It’s not acceptable and we’ve got to do better.”
Jeri Hardy said the Anne Arundel County School Board had revoked her certification in 2019. She said she discovered this when she received a job offer from another bus company. When she contacted the board, she said she didn’t get an answer for why her certification was taken.
“I have a red flag on my name,” Hardy said, and she can’t drive for any other bus company after being decertified.
Other drivers brought up issues specific to this school year, such as Chakia Green, who was exposed to a COVID-19 positive student while driving, but didn’t receive notification.
She asked if workers who test positive after exposure at work will be sent home without pay. Pittman said he didn’t have an answer but that employees should be paid for quarantine.
As a result of the driver shortage, Sabrina Ugaz said she’s driving a wheelchair-accessible bus, which is smaller than typical buses, and “packing almost 60 kids on my bus that can only fit 35 people who can sit down.”
Ugaz said students are either cramming three to a seat or standing on the bus. She said she’s received mixed messages from supervisors on whether students standing is allowed.
“That is not safe. If something does happen, that falls on me as the driver, because I’m responsible for those kids,” Ugaz said.
On Monday and Tuesday, at least 2,000 students were impacted by Annapolis Bus Co. strike; the drivers refused to work, demanding better pay and benefits. On Wednesday, most drivers returned to work, Bob Mosier, spokesman for the school system told WTOP.
Arlotto’s proposals would need to be approved by the Anne Arundel County Council, whose next meeting is Oct 12. Pittman’s call can be viewed on his Facebook page.