A Clash Over Pay Between the Union and the Schoolbus Companies
Who's getting screwed?
by Dan D’Ambrosio
September 08, 2010
When Pat Gaskin began working as a school bus monitor 13 years ago she was paid four bucks an hour. Today, the 42-year-old single mother of three makes $19.85 an hour for a 30-hour work week, enough to make ends meet, she says.
“To see it come as far as it’s come right here, $19 an hour, that’s something to me,” says Gaskin. “I worked for four dollars to 19 dollars, it took some years, some fighting, some sweat.”
Gaskin says she’s making a living wage because of her union, CSEA SEIU Local 2001 and because of Hartford’s living-wage ordinance, strengthened by the city council in March to bring more companies under its umbrella.
The bus companies that contract with the Hartford School system to transport the city’s children to school — Gaskin works for Logisticare — resisted paying the living wage, according to CSEA spokesman Matt O’Connor.
“For years contractors said they were exempt because it was the schools not the city they had their contracts with,” O’Connor says. “We got the [living wage] law passed in the late 1990s but it didn’t apply to [school bus] drivers and monitors for several more years.”
In 2008 the union mounted a campaign to push the council to strengthen the law, culminating in the action taken in March.
“We did revisit [the living wage law] this year to make sure it encompassed all entities the city has contractual agreements with,” says rJo Winch, newly elected president of the city council.
Winch says the tricky thing about the school bus contractors is that they sometimes subcontract to other companies, as Logisticare has done with Specialty Transportation and Autumn Transportation. It was Specialty and Autumn that were involved in the fatal accident on I-84 in January that killed 16-year-old student Vikas Parikh of Rocky Hill.
“Even when they subcontract to other companies, the subcontractors are bound by the living wage,” says Winch.
Yet before the school year started this year, says O’Connor, Specialty and Autumn moved 130 nonunion bus drivers out of Logisticare’s Hartford bus yard on West Service Road to a facility in East Hartford not covered by the city’s living-wage law. There are about 320 drivers total among various bus companies, both union and non-union, either bringing students into Hartford or driving them within the city, according to O’Connor.
O’Connor says the drivers are getting $17.78 an hour in East Hartford to do the same work as Hartford drivers who receive $19.85 an hour.
“The thing we fought for, the thing we pushed to make stronger, well now you’ve got companies completely subverting it, sending drivers out of town to save two bucks an hour,” says O’Connor.
But Salvatore Marotta, one of the owners of Autumn, and Bennett Grossman, owner of Specialty, told the Advocate the drivers were not moved to East Hartford to get around Hartford’s living-wage ordinance, but because the bus yard in Hartford is inadequate.
“We did not have enough room here,” says Grossman. “We were tripping over each other.”
Grossman says there were many small accidents in the yard because it was so congested, and Specialty and Autumn were paying $120,000 a year just to shuttle drivers to the yard from a rented area on Market Street where they would park their cars.
Marotta points out that Specialty and Autumn kept their drivers’ wages at about $18 an hour when they moved them to East Hartford, which was the living wage in Hartford before an increase this July to $19.85.
“Actually, if you take the starting rate for bus companies in the area a lot of drivers are taking $12 to $15 an hour,” says Marotta. “These drivers are making more money than drivers at other bus yards. That’s a fact.”
Specialty and Autumn were able to move drivers to East Hartford because the city bailed out of its contract with Logisticare last December, leaving the program to bring suburban kids into magnet schools in Hartford in the lurch.
The state asked the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) to take over the program, which it agreed to do. Now that Logisticare had a contract with the state, its subcontractors, Specialty and Autumn, were no longer bound by the city’s living-wage ordinance.
The union has cast CREC as something of a co-conspirator with the bus companies to get around the city’s living wage ordinance, which Donald Walsh, CREC’s Deputy Executive Director, finds particularly galling. Walsh says CREC inherited an existing contract negotiated by the city with Logisticare, and has no control over driver pay.
“They were well aware they didn’t have to continue to pay the Hartford living wage,” says Walsh. “When I retire and write my book this will be one of the chapters. Suddenly we’re Bernie Madoff, it’s unbelievable. I understand the union is trying to do right by its employees, but we’re trying to do right by the state of Connecticut and kids in Hartford.”
As bus monitors, Gaskin and fellow worker Kim Bell are responsible for the well-being of the special-needs children they ride with every day. It’s not an easy job.
“We deal with profanity, spitting and scratching,” says Gaskin. “If you don’t have the patience, this is not for you.”
Gaskin recalls a situation three years ago when a student spit on her for 30 minutes, from leaving school until the bus arrived at his home.
“You don’t worry about it,” says Gaskin. “When you get home you wash up and write a report.”
Although Bell and Gaskin are protected by their union from being subjected to something like being moved to East Hartford, they’re speaking up now to draw attention to the issue. And they’re getting it.
The city council’s Labor and Workforce Committee, headed by Winch, has scheduled a hearing regarding the bus contracts for Sept. 15.
“The majority of drivers and monitors are Hartford residents,” says Winch. “I want to ensure those employees are making a living wage to provide for their families.”