With no students to shuttle to campus with the return of the school year, about 260 San Francisco school bus drivers received notice this past week that they would be losing their pay — and their health insurance.
Drivers haven’t been paid wages since June but expected to get back to work with the new year. Instead, they are suddenly scrambling to find health insurance by the end of September on top of delayed unemployment claims, according to union SMART Local 1741.
About 100 people protested the notices on Thursday at City Hall, seeking to at least get their health care maintained during the pandemic and warning that their termination will make it difficult to bring students back to campus when the time comes.
“It’s just so immoral,” said Sharon Chappill, SMART 1741 union president, who grew up in the Fillmore neighborhood. “We don’t just sing ‘The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round. We’ve seen things, we counsel kids, we’ve been there for families, we’re part of the community. I’ve worked for 30-something years to walk out with nothing.”
School bus drivers are not district employees but contracted through First Students. Transporting 3,500 students costs SFUSD $30 million annually, according to district spokesperson Laura Dudnick. SFUSD continued to pay the company in March without needing buses, at a cost of $6.4 million.
Drivers thought they would return with the school year, which began this week with entirely online classes.
“As SFUSD continues to face chronic budgetary pressure and a systemic structural deficit, we cannot afford to continue paying for non-service beyond the four-plus months we have already done so,” Dudnick said. “The district needs to prioritize paying SFUSD employees and meeting the current needs of our students as best we can with the resources we have.”
Without the SFUSD funding coming to First Students, the company said it could no longer hold out. About 80 percent of its school district customers nationwide have continued funding its drivers, the company said.
“Despite our urging, SFUSD has decided to forgo funding student transportation at this time, even after providing support for our employees at the end of last school year,” First Students said in a statement. “If we experience significant employee losses, our service might not resume fully when schools reopen for in-person learning.”
Like First Students, drivers warn that once students begin to trickle in, it will be difficult to get bus services going again quickly without the drivers on payroll. Vehicles need to be maintained, certificates need to be up to date, and social distancing on buses will require more drivers with new training.
Jader Castaño, who has driven buses for 24 years and whose kids graduated from SFUSD, also warned that this could be a further opening to privatize public education but with nonunionized drivers with less training and regulation. Part of the district’s transportation is provided by Zum, a ridesharing app for kids.
“A lot of people don’t realize that, but there’s a lot that goes into [school transportation],” said Castaño, who helps train drivers. “They’re trying to find ways to save money It’s just a race to the bottom.”
In the meantime, health care is top of mind for the drivers. Chippill and Castaño have yet to receive unemployment benefits, while some union members have contracted coronavirus and worry about treatment being cut off.
“The hardest fact to accept is that we’re losing our health care,” Castaño said. “That’s the most basic thing we need right now. Things have gotten pretty dicey.”