UPDATE: Bus drivers consider walkout over benefit changes
It’s 7 a.m. on a cold morning in January and Valerie Wood drives her bus route early in order to pick up one child – because he is homeless. Wood, who has been driving for Loudoun County for more than six years, makes a special exception to pick up a little boy 50 minutes early and has a blanket on the bus for him to keep him warm on extremely cold mornings.
Wood’s employment benefits are in question after a Loudoun County School Board discussion about the benefits of part-time workers who work between 3.5-to-7 hours a day being completely cut. Hundreds of drivers attended the School Board public hearing and work session Jan. 31 dressed in black and red to show their frustration. They say that many have taken jobs as drivers specifically for the benefits.
The school boardroom was scattered with residents and LCPS employees on Jan. 31 wearing black and red in protest of proposed cuts in the budget that would affect part-time employees. More than 400 people gathered with more than 80 who had signed up to speak.
One amendment to the proposed questions Chairman Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) brought up first thing was to change the hour bracket from the 3.5 to 7 hours to be affected by cuts to 3.5 to 6 hours – keeping teaching assistants on county benefits.
Many speakers who were both full-time and part-time employees shared the same sentiment over the potential loss of benefits that most had taken jobs within the schools in order to receive.
“Let’s keep in mind that the majority in this room are the people. In this world there are needs and wants. Benefits are needs. This board wants to take away the benefits of the bus drivers and others, that is a want, that is not a need,” explained Fran Lettington, a bus driver for LCPS for 10 years. Lettington has also been working for LCPS for 18 years as a substitute teacher. “Loudoun County Public Schools is not a private club where you can make decisions just to cut corners. This is a county government job. If you need to cut, cut it across the board from the top of the crop to the bottom of the basket. It doesn’t matter the hours we work, it’s the job we were hired for. What others do doesn’t make them any better than I am at mine. It takes a special person to drive students to school and like what they do. Benefits is why I drive a bus. If Warren Geurin were here, God rest his soul, he would be working for the people. He also puts the students first and that is where the bus drivers come into play.”
During budget work sessions, the School Board tried to find alternative ways of decreasing the school system’s proposed operating budget for fiscal 2013.
If these discussed changes are put into effect, a majority of the bus drivers who spoke with the Times-Mirror have threatened to walk out.
According to School Board policy §7-8 (b)(1), “full-time employment is defined as being the sole employee under a regular contract or assignment in a position that is budgeted for at least 180 days, for no less than 3.5 hours daily or the equivalent. Two employees who initiate a request and are permitted to share a full-time position of at least 180 days per year and no less than seven hours daily may be identified as full-time employees but will only be eligible for prorated health benefits.”
Hornberger asked senior school staff Jan. 20 to provide the estimated cost savings, types of positions and number of full-time employees affected should the policy be modified to no less than seven hours daily or the equivalent.
According to school staff, the estimated cost savings of modifying the policy would save approximately $24 million as 1,864 positions would no longer be eligible for the Virginia Retirement System, group life insurance, healthcare, dental, vision, or short-term disability. The group would no longer be eligible for optional employee-paid benefits such as long-term disability, cancer insurance, long-term care insurance, or family sick leave bank. Those employees whose status would change from full-time to part-time under this scenario would also no longer receive leave of any kind.
Employees who have worked in the Loudoun County School System for less than five years would be eligible for a payout of the employee contributions made on their behalf prior to July 1, 2010. Employees that have worked for the school system for greater than five years would be eligible for a payout of all contributions or could leave the VRS contributions until they reach the age or amount of service requirement for retirement.
The positions that range from 3.5 hours to 6.84 hours and would be affected include 402 bus drivers, 50 bus attendants, 1,136 teaching assistants, 72 teachers, 183 cafeteria workers and 21 other varying positions.
Hornberger clarified at the Jan. 26 meeting the reasoning behind costing the seven hours as the full-time requirement.
“Just as a point of clarification, seven hours was chosen just because it was double of 3.5, not because there is any intention on my part to do that,” Hornberger said.
Rebecca Lee, who drives bus No. 216 for LCPS, says she’s been driving for more than five years in Loudoun County and about two years ago had to relocate to Maryland because she couldn’t afford to raise her family in Loudoun County. She kept her job because of the benefits, and took her daughter out of a Loudoun County Public School and into a less affluent school.
“I’ve dedicated myself and I’m proud of myself – I tell everyone I drive for Loudoun County,” Lee said. “I’ve been here for five years and I’ve had benefits since the get-go and now you want to take them away? I have health issues. I need my benefits.”
According to Lee, by law for a person to hold a commercial driver’s license, they have to be healthy. If a driver’s health is not strong enough to operate that vehicle the state will take away their license.
“If you pull my health insurance from me you’re saying I will never get sick? Your doctor has to say that you can operate that vehicle in that manner,” Lee said.
Kim Wright said she relies on her husband’s insurance, but when he lost his job, she was able to use her own benefits. Wright feels that since she’s around so many sick children it should be the county’s responsibility to cover her.
“The thing that gets me more than anything is I love my kids but they’re little germ mongers and you’re not going to pay us when we get sick?” Wright asked. “You’re not going to pay me when I get sick because I’m exposed to all these sick little children I carry, that doesn’t make a darn bit of sense.”
According to LCPS Public Information Officer Wayde Byard, there is not a proposal that has been announced.
“There is no real proposal on the bus drivers at this time, we just costed out what the School Board asked us to do,” Byard said.
Jeff Platenberg, assistant superintendent for the Department of Support Services, noted that a lot of bus drivers with LCPS work strictly for the benefits.
“The point about some people doing it strictly for the benefits, that is absolutely correct. The flexibility of the job really does allow for a perfect fit,” Platenberg said. “A lot of people don’t realize that there was a time when it was extremely difficult to get bus drivers here, because our neighbors next door in Prince William offered benefits and that is one of reasons we went to that.
“When we are all competing for people, it becomes a dynamic environment to try and attract and retain those employees,” Platenberg said.
Platenberg is concerned that if changes are made, there will be major problems in being able to serve the students of Loudoun County.
“There has already been an impact. Absolutely. Keep in mind, we have taken budget reductions over the last couple of years in transportation and we have doubled up on middle school runs and more second runs on the elementary level,” Platenberg said. “I do think there would be an adverse impact and service level would be impacted definitely.”
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