New London bus drivers struggling to pay bills under new employer

New London — City school bus drivers say they are struggling to pay their bills since the school board contracted with a new company, First Student Inc., to operate the school transportation fleet of approximately 100 vehicles.

Hilary Henry, 39, a special needs van driver, said she has been driving city school children since 2008 and currently makes $23 an hour. She said full time is considered 32 hours a week, and her annual salary has averaged about $36,000.

Since First Student took over from Student Transportation of America last year and became her employer, Henry said she has had to fight for her full hours every week and has been unable to budget her money because her check is different every week. Some paychecks are short, Henry said, and other weeks she receives overtime pay for normal hours, and because of the overtime pay, the check is taxed so heavily that she makes less than usual.

"I just purchased a home last April, which is why I'm so stressed out," Henry said. "This is my only source of income. Right now I'm borrowing money to pay my bills."

The school district entered into a five-year contract with First Student, a national company headquartered in Cincinnati, in 2019. The district has budgeted $3.8 million for the service for 2020 and $4.1 million for 2021, according to Robert Funk, executive director of finance for the school district. The cost for storing buses, which are temporarily housed at New London High School, will be additional. The bus company also employs about 75 to 100 bus monitors.

The district's previous bus contractor, Student Transportation of America (STA), bid lower than First Student, according to school board Vice President Jefferey Hart, who chairs the finance committee and was involved in the negotiations. Hart said that there had been parent complaints about late buses, lost children and unresponsiveness with STA, and that First Student, which uses a GPS tracking system on buses, was supposed to be more accountable and transparent.

The GPS system, known as ZONAR, may be one reason the drivers are receiving less in their paychecks. The drivers said that they are now paid by the minutes worked rather than the "package" hours and set schedule they received previously, and that as a result of the GPS and fixed lengths of time allotted to each route, they are sometimes clocked out of the system while still driving their buses or vans. The length of their routes can vary due to traffic and student attendance and behavior issues.

Hart said he couldn't comment on the bus driver complaints, which have not yet been addressed via union grievances. He said the drivers are supposed to have the same contract with First Student that they had with STA.

"I think there's a huge responsibility for us to support our workers whether they are contractors or employees," Hart said. "These bus drivers in particular have a very difficult job, and I respect the work they do hugely."

Marleney Bencosme, a city bus driver since 2013, organized bus drivers for a recent interview with The Day at a downtown storefront. She said 20 people had indicated they would come. When only four women showed up, one of whom did not want her name used, Bencosme said drivers are afraid of losing their jobs, and she has been told she could be sued, or fired, for speaking out.

A single mother and homeowner, Bencosme said her hours have been reduced, she is having trouble paying her mortgage, and the company is disrespectful to its workers.

"We're getting less and less in our paycheck and more (aggravation) with the company," Bencosme said. As for the union, she said, "I don't think they're working with us."

Mike Trujillo, assistant general manager for First Student in New London, referred questions to the company's main office, which did not respond to a phone message.

The bus drivers belong to the Service Employees International Union. Their union representative did not return a phone message.

The drivers are required to have a commercial driver's license, pass background checks and prove they are fit to drive by completing two company-financed physical examinations a year and a Department of Transportation proficiency test every two years.

The women said First Student allows them to buy health insurance through a private company, but it's unaffordable. Some have children and are eligible for the state's Husky B program, while others qualify for state health insurance only during the summer, when most of them are laid off and collecting unemployment compensation.

"Once a year they hang up a flier that you can purchase insurance, but they're talking almost your whole paycheck," said 47-year-old Cheryl Mitchell, a driver of 19 years.

The drivers accrue sick time after working 380 hours, but they said their accrued hours from STA did not carry over to their new employer as expected. They said rules and conditions, such as who can be assigned to "light duty" when injured, are not applied consistently or fairly.

Mtichell said she's worried she won't be able to pay her rent or car payment.

She and the other drivers said when they mention their concerns to the company, they are met with a harsh response.

"I think we got more respected with the other company," said Mitchell. "Drivers have been told, 'We have people in training who will take your job.'''

k.florin@theday.com

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