January 10, 2014

Miami-Dade school district looking for resolution with bus drivers after ‘sick-out’

Miami-Dade schools administrators say they are trying to work out a deal with bus drivers after tense negotiations contributed Friday to an apparent sick-out.

Scores of Miami-Dade students were late to school Friday — and some briefly stranded — when hundreds of bus drivers skipped work in an apparent protest over wages and the increasing cost of healthcare.

Close to 250 bus drivers were no-shows, according to district spokesman John Schuster. He said many called in sick and caused mostly minor problems at 80 schools in the central, south and southwest parts of the county.

The district employs 1,300 drivers who bus more than 60,000 students to school each day. The absences set administrators scrambling to cover routes and bracing for the chance that drivers might again stay home on Monday.

“We will be working through the weekend to plan for that,” Schuster said. “We want employees to know they’re valuable members of the school district family.”

Friday’s apparent sick-out came amid tense negotiations between the school district and the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents some 6,000 school board employees, including drivers. District officials say talks over wages and benefits broke down recently. As a result, the price of AFSCME employees’ healthcare rose 17 percent on Jan. 1.

With drivers working few hours over the Christmas Break and healthcare costs for the month substantially higher, some received miniscule paychecks on Thursday and Friday. Many are paid less than $20,000 a year.

“Some people got negative dollars. They got an IOU,” said union president Sherman Henry.

Henry said there was no planned strike, which in a right-to-work state like Florida would be illegal. He blamed the school district, which he said had hiked health insurance costs as a negotiating tactic.

“They made a conscious decision to (bleep) these people over,’’ he said. “That’s what happened.”

District officials, on the other hand, said Henry’s union had repeatedly declined to return to the table to talk and knew rates would increase with the new year unless employees moved to a new plan.

Enid Weisman, head of human resources, said the district has a plan to curb healthcare increases. She said money was also set aside from the millions Miami-Dade received for Gov. Rick Scott’s “teacher raises” to offer a 2.3 percent wage increase.

School Board member Carlos Curbelo condemned the strike and called on Superintendent Alberto Carvalho to “take swift action” against employees who skipped work.

“Using children and putting their safety at risk is not an acceptable negotiation tactic,” he said.

As drivers stayed home, some parents said they received calls from their children and schools that buses were either late or never came.

Mia Lopez, the mother of a 12-year-old sixth grader, said her daughter was left standing at 163rd Avenue and 96th Street. The girl called a half hour after the bus was scheduled to come to say another student’s parent was taking stranded kids to Herbert A. Ammons Middle School.

Lopez, who had already caught the Metrorail to her downtown job, said she told her daughter to go with the parent even though she didn’t know the person.

“I had absolutely no other choice. If not, she would have had to go back home and stay for the day,” Lopez said.

Other parents said that’s exactly what their children did when the bus didn’t show.

While Schuster said issues were minor at most schools, some parents and teachers reported that hundreds of students were late at Ponce de Leon Middle and Miami Killian Senior High, where Curbelo said 500 students were affected by 10 no-show buses. Parents inundated the office at John A. Ferguson Senior High with phone calls after the district placed automated calls to parents. Over the loud speaker, teachers were told to stop flagging late students as tardy.

In many cases, the district was able to cover bus routes by the time students were dismissed. But Patricia St. Macary said she had to leave the Aventura law office she manages to pick up her son, a third-grader at Virginia A. Boone Highland Oaks Elementary.

“They had all the kids in the office calling the parents,” she said. “I told my boss I need to leave, pick up my kid and come back. They weren’t really happy about it but there was nothing they can do.”

Friday’s apparent protests came three months after an ultimately failed proposal by Curbelo to study outsourcing the district’s $69 million transportation department drew the ire of drivers and aides. It was also reminiscent of 2010’s teacher sick-out, when a third of Miami-Dade’s teachers called in sick or took personal days to protest legislation that would overhaul their pay.

Schuster said Friday morning that the district knew of drivers who’d called in sick and showed up at protests. But he said the district wasn’t focusing on punishment.

Rather, he urged Henry and AFSCME leaders to work through the weekend to come to an agreement on a new contract. He said the district would be prepared for any problems that might occur Monday, though he said there was no indication that bus drivers would again skip work.

“The goal here is not to reprimand people,” he said. “The goal is to get back on track and ensure that our students are receiving the services they deserve.”

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