SUMTER S.C. (WIS) - A group of nearly two dozen Sumter School District bus drivers has not returned to their routes one week after striking over low wages and poor working conditions.
Drivers claim they sent the district several letters making them aware of their dissatisfactions and said the district did not respond by a deadline of Nov. 4. As a result, some drivers failed to show up for their routes the next day and many continue to strike.
The Sumter School District sent a letter to drivers last week inviting them to sit in on group sessions to discuss their concerns. The first meeting took place on Tuesday morning and a few more were planned for Tuesday afternoon as well as Wednesday.
“The drivers expressed some valid concerns to Superintendent Penelope Martin-Knox last week and many of those concerns are being addressed in group and individual meetings,” said Shelly Galloway, a public information officer for the district. “Listening is key if we wish to seek resolve. Our bus drivers are an integral part of our team and they are valued.”
Galloway said the going rate statewide for school bus drivers is $7.70 per hour. New drivers in the Sumter School District start at $10.19 per hour, according to Galloway.
“It is important to note that the district remains under a fiscal emergency and we are not in a position to offer raises during this fiscal year,” said Galloway. “All bus drivers received a raise in January 2017 and a step increase in July of 2018. Only classroom teachers received a step increase this year.”
Aysha Benjamin has been a bus driver for 11 years and said she misses seeing the children on her routes every day. However, she said and fellow drivers have those children in mind when they talk with district officials.
“We’re not just fighting for a higher, higher wage. We’re fighting for our children, for them to be safe on the bus, also,” said Benjamin. “For these buses to stop being overloaded, for kids to stop sitting on the floor in their good clothes, so we’re fighting for the kids.”
Benjamin said she’s been forced to live paycheck to paycheck, unsure of what bill she’ll be able to pay off each month as a result of the low wages. She said she loves her job and does it for the children.
“Sometimes I do five routes, sometimes I do six routes, and I’m only supposed to be doing three routes,” she said. “The only reason I do this is to get the kids off the side of the street or get them home safely. It’s not that we don’t want to drive the kids, because we love driving the kids, it’s the fact that we gave the district time to respond and they didn’t. They underestimated us.”
Latonya Shannon has been a bus driver within the district for four years. She does not have a second job but said she struggles to keep her family afloat.
“I have to live paycheck to paycheck and the money I’m getting is not enough to cover my living costs or my utilities,” she said, “I have to budget here, budget there, but I’m still in the hole.”
Calvin Bennett has children within the district but supports the driver strike. He said his children have been dropped off as late as 7:00 at night because of inefficiencies in the way the district runs its transportation department.
“They’re trying to patch it. We’re trying to get this problem fixed,” said Bennett. “Patching it is not going to work. You’ve been patching to for years. Now is the time to fix the problem.”
Bennett said over the last week while drivers have been on strike, students have still been dropped off at school late from the bus stop.
“We’ve had kids sending us videos while we’re out here on the sidewalk and they’re sitting still waiting for the bus at 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. in the morning,” he said. “I won’t accept it at all. That is unacceptable. That is not going to matter no what.”
On Tuesday, bus drivers were greeted as they exited the district office by members of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, Teamsters Local 509 and the Charleston-based “South Carolina Fight For 15,” a group that advocates for $15 minimum wage and unions.
“We know without the bus drivers our kids can’t get to school,” said Bleu Rainer, an organizer of South Carolina Fight For 15. “They demand and they deserve to make $15 hour and deserve to have a union especially for that bargaining power.”
Charles Brave, the president of the South Carolina chapter of AFL-CIO, said the bus drivers would be better suited to unionize to secure better wages and benefits.
“In South Carolina, we take pride in being last and, in South Carolina, the union takes pride in wanting to be first,” he said. “We want to raise awareness that you shouldn’t stand for less. You deserve the best.”
Some parents within the district have taken exception to the strike, forced to find alternative transportation options for their children to get to school in the immediate aftermath of the strike.
“The buses aren't coming, the buses are late, the bus drivers threatening to quit…this is an ongoing problem,” said Candance Smalls, who has children in Sumter School District.
The district said it has been advertising bus driver vacancies since the beginning of the year and has several classes set up for those who are interested.