N.S. resident calls for end to bus contract over safety concerns as union effort fails

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – Saying that the buses bringing North Smithfield students to and from schools are overcrowded and unsafe, one resident is calling for an end to the district’s contract with transportation provider DATTCO.

The call for termination of the contract follows a defeated effort by drivers who wished to organize a union, reportedly in part, over similar concerns.

According to resident Stephen Vowels, for the past two years, the buses operated by the company have been overcrowded to the point where students have to sit or lay on the floors on their way to school.

“According to some school officials, they have done all that they can to get DATTCO, who runs the buses, to fix this safety issue,” noted Vowels on the NS Town Info page he operates. “I will be calling to end this contract ASAP as it has to have been breached due to lack of safety.”

School Committee Chairman James Lombardi told NRI NOW on Monday, Nov. 18, that Vowels’ plea to parents to contact DATTCO was the first he had heard of the issue.

“Obviously I won’t allow any child to sit on the floor of a bus during operations and hope that the situation did not occur,” Lombardi said.

Lombardi said he contacted Supt. Michael St. Jean immediately after hearing of the issue. The two school officials are awaiting a response from the bus company, and Lombardi notes that camera footage from the bus rides can verify the validity of the claims.

Reactions were mixed on Vowels’ social media post, with one parent saying that her son has walked home rather than sit on the floor. Two individuals said that as bus drivers trained in safety, they would never drive without all of the children seated.

North Smithfield began their current contract with the bus company in July of 2018, and it expires in July of 2021

DATTCO officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The news comes on the tail of a defeated effort by some employees who work for the Connecticut-based company to start a union for school bus workers.

A man named Joel River contacted NRI NOW, saying his mother was among those supporting the effort.

River says that his mother pursued the job of bus driving once her five children were grown.

“You have to have a certain love for the job,” River said of his experience with those who are attracted to the profession. “They like the idea of taking care of others.”

River said his mother started as monitor in North Smithfield with DATTCO. He watched the process as she later earned her CDL to become a bus driver, and says he was surprised at how difficult it can be.

“Her experience has been nothing but a disaster,” he said.

As it turned out, River says, the difficult process of obtaining a license for what he says is a relatively low-paying job was only the start of his mother’s struggles with the profession. Soon, he says, she found herself alone driving buses filled with 30 or more students, and break-downs were common in the town’s fleet.

Citing safety concerns resulting in poor working conditions and the lack of adequate wages and benefits, River says his mother was among the drivers who began discussions with DATTCO earlier this year, bringing in demands with the threat of a strike.

Around two months ago, the group contacted an attorney for help.

And on Friday, Oct. 4, the drivers submitted a petition with the National Labor Relations Board seeking the right to hold a vote to organize.

At first, River says most of the drivers were on board with the idea.

“When they began talking with the union they were all very riled up,” he said.

But River says that once DATTCO officials learned of the effort, they hired a consultant, and began a campaign to defeat the collective bargaining plan. Employees who had worked for the company for some 30 years met the owners for the first time, he said, and meetings that were mandatory for staff members were held up to three times a week.

“They were bombarded with meetings that they were required to go to,” River said.

In a letter sent out to the workers on Wednesday, Oct. 16, John Burns, senior staff representative for AFSCME Rhode Island Council 94, states that DATTCO also made misleading statements to the group, noting that his organization does not have initiation fees, and does not force anyone to go on strike.

“The employer has started to pay attention to the employees only after you have taken the steps to organize a union,” Burns notes.

On Thursday, Oct. 31, the effort to organize was defeated by a vote of 24 to 5.

River says the workers backed out because they believed DATTCO would give them benefits, including holiday pay, time off and a pay increase.

“Some of them were skeptical, but they eventually caved in,” he said. “Most of them were convinced that they were doing the right thing saying ‘no.'”

Legally, he says, the bus staff must wait one year before petitioning again for a vote to organize.

Following the vote, the company did make some concessions – offering school bus staff four hours of holiday pay for Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King Day after a year of service – but River says they were very small.

A worksheet documenting pay increases sent out to the group on Monday, Nov. 4 shows raises of $1 or less, with some pay rates increasing by 50 cents an hour. At the new rates, North Smithfield drivers now make between $18 and $22 per hour.

River said that for workers like his mother, it was something of a “bait and switch.”

“Sometimes the people who are the most vulnerable can be so poorly taken care of,” said River.

And his call for better treatment of North Smithfield’s bussing staff comes at a time when some are questioning laws governing collective bargaining.

Earlier this year, bus drivers with First Student Inc. bid to cut ties with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The National Labor Relations Board rejected the request, a decision that has been appealed by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.

Just last week, 16 communities across Rhode Island, including Burrillville and North Smithfield, signed on to a lawsuit looking to abolish the state statute that extends public-sector labor union contracts after they expire.

River says he was inspired to speak out on his mother’s behalf because like many working for the company, she fears retaliation from her employer if she were to do it herself. He notes that many of the drivers build great relationships with the families of the children they serve, and that the public is unaware of their plight – including unsafe driving conditions.  

“Most people have no idea of what these people go through,” said River. “I think the only way change can happen is public awareness.” 

River says the buses his mother drives frequently break down, and that she’s often alone driving more than 30 kids at a time.

“You would think these instances would be few and far between, but they’re not,” said River, adding that his mother has had to take vehicles for repair twice in one day. 

Lombardi said he was unaware of the North Smithfield school bus drivers’ efforts to organize. He said previous to this week, he had not heard of complaints about overcrowding or bus breakdowns, and noted that as part of their contract, DATTCO is required to use newer buses to transport North Smithfield students.

“I would be surprised,” he said of the question of bus breakdowns.

The chairman later noted that it was the previous contract with the company that stipulated use of the newer vehicles. The current contract states that vehicles shall be no more than ten years old with no more than 150,000 miles.

River says that his mother has never missed a day of work, but that she worries about both herself and the students she drives.

“She has no access to good and affordable healthcare,” said River. “This is her life. She prides herself in being reliable and building these relationships.”   

“It’s all about cutting costs,” said River. “Everyone else is left to struggle… including the children.”

Vowels did not return NRI NOW‘s call for comment.

Lombardi said he has asked the superintendent to be ready to discuss overcrowding and buses breaking down at the School Committee’s next meeting.
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