BROOKLYN — School bus workers at two of the city’s largest bus companies, upset over increased healthcare costs and reduced holidays, voted Wednesday to authorize a strike — a move that could leave thousands of students in the lurch.
Some 900 drivers and attendants from Jofaz and Y&M Transit could go on strike as early as Tuesday, creating havoc for students with special needs and general education students along hundreds of routes in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island — many of whom already have serious transit woes, like trips that take hours too long and get them to school too late.
The majority of workers at the Red Hook-based companies — 85 percent — voted to authorize the strike for the day after their contract with the Department of Education expires on Monday, meaning the strike could occur as early as Tuesday.
The contract had initially expired in June, but their union, Teamsters Local 553, extended the contract twice hoping to reach an agreement that would not affect students, labor leaders said.
“These are the workers that we entrust with the safety of our children, but starting wages for school bus attendants aren’t much higher than minimum wage,” Demos Demopoulos, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 553, said in a statement. “We’ve tried to work with the owner, but the company has been unwilling to sign a fair contract for workers.”
Many workers at the two companies — which share the same owner and same union contract — are single mothers, Demopoulos said, and increasing healthcare costs for them, he believes “is patently unfair.”
Workers also opposed a company plan to take away five holidays, using the city’s new Paid Sick Days law, which requires five paid sick days, as an excuse, union officials said.
“To say I shouldn’t get holiday pay for Thanksgiving, or for MLK Day, just because I called out when I was sick? That is so disrespectful,” said Lisa Cilone, a Jofaz school bus driver.
Representatives from the bus company had no comment.
DOE officials hoped to quickly settle the matter, but have contingency plans in place.
"We are disappointed with this outcome and working to swiftly address concerns of students, families and educators,” DOE spokeswoman Devora Kaye said. “We have contingency plans in place — either a MetroCard for students and families or alternate bus service — to ensure transportation options for students.”
There was a school bus strike in 2013, which involved different bus companies and a different union that hobbled students across the city.
Advocates and parents are bracing for the potential work stoppage.
Based on the last strike, it’s imperative that the DOE gets information to families in advance —in multiple languages — that clearly articulates what the reimbursement looks like for those parents who must take their kids themselves, said Lori Podvesker, of INCLUDE NYC, a nonprofit that provides information and resources to parents of children with special needs.
During the last bus strike, thousands of kids were stranded and ended up not going to school, she said.
Many special needs students may not be able to take public transit, for a variety of reasons, and they may go to schools that are quite far since those are the only places that can serve their needs. Taking them to school can be a hardship both in terms of time and money for parents, who might not even be able to lay out the cash for trips even if they’ll be reimbursed later, Podvesker noted.
“What about kids with mobility issues? They were left behind the most last time. Kids might have sensory issues and can’t take the subway,” she said. “How will related services be made up if kids get to school late or not at all? If a family doesn’t have the money to front their own transportation and their kid can’t take the subway, will there be a person at the school available to give cash reimbursement?”
The message sent during the last bus strike, she felt, was that the education of special needs students wasn’t valued since plans were not effectively in place to get theme to school.”
“How is the information being disseminated in proactive way so that kids don’t miss school?,” Podvesker asked, adding, “Getting your kids out to school and getting them there on time is super hard on any day.”