'In a tough spot:' Trumbull school bus drivers protest over job safety
TRUMBULL — School bus drivers in town said they are prepared to walk off the job over what they called broken promises on the part of Durham School Services.
Groups of drivers picketed in front of Town Hall and the Long Hill Administration Building at 10 a.m. Tuesday, and on White Plains Road and at the Westfield Trumbull mall on Wednesday when schools were closed to in-person learning.
Drivers also staged a pair of rolling pickets through town Wednesday, driving the town’s main roads to bring their protest to the neighborhoods of school parents, organizers said.
The acts are intended to get their message out without unduly affecting Trumbull parents, according to Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1336 President Mustafa Salahuddin.
“We’re not trying to do anything to hurt the kids or their parents, but we need to draw attention to the situation,” Salahuddin said. “We circulated a petition and the members were almost unanimous that they were willing to authorize a strike.”
The drivers have been working under an expired contract for more than a year, Salahuddin said. But the drivers say the real issue is the potential risks to their health, especially after positive COVID-19 cases popped up at two Trumbull schools.
Durham School Services media liaison Edward Flavin, Trumbull School Superintendent Martin Semmel and Transportation Coordinator Dawn Perkins did not immediately return phone calls requesting comment Wednesday. A Hearst Connecticut Media reporter who contacted Durham’s Spring Hill Road bus depot was told to call back Thursday.
Maritza Rosado, a driver and trainer for the past five years, said she is issued one protective mask per day that she uses for her morning and afternoon shifts. Some drivers also work an additional evening run wearing the same surgical mask.
“We come in, get our mask and make our run,” she said. “Then after the morning shift, we clean the bus and spray disinfectant. And for the afternoon shift, we have to put that same contaminated mask back on that we’ve been taking on and off and breathing in while we’re spraying.”
The company also allegedly reneged on a promise that drivers would not have to transport unmasked children, said 34-year driver Marv Robinson.
“It puts the drivers in a tough spot,” Robinson said. “We’re not going to leave a kid behind at a stop.”
Drivers carry a few extra masks to give to children who forget to wear a mask. The unused masks are then turned in at the end of the shift. But students forgetting their masks aren’t really the problem, Rosado said.
“One kid flat-out said he wasn’t going to wear a mask. What then?” she said. “We’re supposed to write them up, so we write them up but then nothing happens. We can’t not transport them.”
Robinson said even when the company tries to enforce the rule, the driver is the one who is stuck.
“Yesterday a kid wasn’t wearing a mask,” he said. “When it was called in, the response was that the parents don’t want their child to wear a mask. So what then?”
According to Salahuddin, the plan when school started was that if a student refused to wear a mask, that student’s parents would have to find alternate means to get them to school.
Drivers said what they described as the seeming unwillingness of the company to back its employees was especially galling given that they are working without a new contract during a pandemic, with drivers already seeing reduced pay because they are working four days a week — the district does completely remote learning on Wednesdays — instead of the five days that their former contract called for.
The positive COVID-19 tests in the schools added to their resentment over the lack of protective equipment and mask enforcement.
“We came back to work in good faith, during a pandemic,” Rosado said. “Then we find out after the fact that people tested positive?”
The schools have not said if the positive tests were among students or staff, but if it was a student who rode the bus, the drivers could have had close contact and would need to quarantine.
“But they told us about it after we had transported the children that day,” she said.