January 14, 2014

Miami-Dade schools probing bus driver ‘sick-out’

Public employees in Florida found to have engaged in an illegal strike can be fired. Unions can lose their certification.

Student transportation has returned to normal for Miami-Dade students. But that doesn’t mean all is forgiven and forgotten after last week’s apparent “sick-out” by bus drivers.

The Miami-Dade School Board may take a vote Wednesday to request an investigation into Friday’s bus-driver absences on the grounds that there may have been an illegal strike. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Tuesday that the district has already launched an inquiry “on the basis of unusual absenteeism in limited but specific transportation centers.”

Still, Board Member Carlos Curbelo, who has also asked for a review of the district’s backup transportation plans, said, “I think it’s important for the board, who’s ultimately responsible to the public, to weigh in.”

According to the district, as many as 242 bus drivers failed to show up to work Friday, leaving administrators and parents to scramble to get kids from some 80 schools to class. Schools officials and union leaders attributed the single day of absences, seen mostly at two or three bus depots, to anger over a hike in healthcare costs that came amid stalled contract negotiations.

Under state law and the Florida constitution, public employee strikes are illegal.

Sherman Henry, the president of the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, did not return calls Tuesday. But he has said there was no organized strike by the union. And AFSCME on Monday condemned work stoppages and stressed that leaders were doing everything they could to keep employees from shirking their duties.

Over the weekend, Henry urged employees to attend Wednesday’s School Board meeting to voice any concerns rather than skip work again.

Still, a district spokesman noted Friday that some employees were seen protesting after calling in sick. And Carvalho said the district has an obligation to take a deeper look at what happened even while trying to reignite sensitive labor negotiations with AFSCME.

Florida laws say anyone found to have engaged in an illegal strike — defined in part as “the concerted failure of employees to report for duty” — can lose their jobs, be placed on probation, and have wages frozen for a year. Unions found to have played a role in a public employee strike can be fined $20,000 per day and lose the right to collectively bargain on behalf of the striking employee group.

The district sent almost daily reminders throughout the weekend and Monday that public employees are valued, but strikes, including “sick-outs,” are illegal.

“There are some individuals who may have had a role in instigating and that’s particularly disturbing because there are employees in the system who didn’t understand the implications,” Carvalho said.

Carvalho and his staff, however, have focused most of their public statements on finding resolutions following Friday’s absences. Both AFSCME and the district worked through the weekend to ease labor tensions and jump-start contract talks that have included discussion of wage increases and cheaper benefits.

The Miami-Dade school district has in recent history been measured in dealing with striking employees. None of the thousands of teachers who took a personal or sick day in 2010 to protest a merit-pay bill was fired, according to the head of human resources.

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