Small bus contractors facing uncertain future fed up with state contract

By Ronald MacArthur

Local school bus contractors are mad - and they aren’t going to take it anymore. Most contractors in the area agree that if changes aren’t made to better compensate them in the near future, many smaller contractors will be forced out of business. They are in the process of getting “the word” out to the public about their plight. Laurel contractor Debbie Aaron was among the first to speak out. “We are carrying the most precious cargo - the leaders of tomorrow - and we are losing money,” she said. “We are paying more and more out of our pockets.” “We could cut the top off our buses and haul watermelons during the summer and make more in three months than we make in a year as school bus drivers,” said Lee Collins, a Delmar bus contractor. “This is more like a hobby than an actual job.” Contractors are using words like “strike” and “work stoppage” as they search for ways to reach state officials and legislators. “We don’t have any bargaining power because there is really no one speaking for us,” Collins said. “We’ve been told that the only thing that the state will understand is if we park our buses,” Aaron said. “We are operating as if it was 20-30 years ago,” said Donnie Haines, a Laurel contractor. “We are working off a formula that hasn’t been updated since the 1970s.” The increasing cost of diesel and gasoline has only aggravated an already broken system according to drivers who sat down to talk last Friday at Britt’s Dutch Inn. Bus contractors in the area are independent contractors hired by the state of Delaware and do not receive benefits. “We are right on the fence between being a full-time employee and a contractor,” said Donna Reed. “To me, we are more like a state employee.”
The contractors and drivers said they have not had a significant increase in their state contract for the past few years, and no increase in the past two years. “Labor costs go up, insurance goes up, maintenance costs go up, and fuel goes up, but not our contract,” Haines said. And there will be no fuel adjustment this year, either according to Aaron, even with the almost daily increase in fuel prices. “They determine the price off the state bid,” she said. “The state buys in large bulk and pays no federal or state tax which comes down to about $1.04 per gallon that the state pays - but that’s not what we pay.” Aaron said that for every 40 gallons of fuel she pumps in her buses, she loses $27 because of the increases in prices this spring. Contractors are having increasing difficulties finding drivers because of the pay, hours, and conditions. “You have to ask yourself why anyone would want to own a bus or drive one,” said Aaron. “Parents and people don’t begin to understand that this is not an easy job,” Sandy Rash added. The contract allows for a $7 per hour reimbursement for bus drivers. “There is no way we can hire drivers for that rate,” Haines said. “So what we add to it comes right out of our pockets. Delivery truck drivers get $18 an hour and trash truck drivers get $11-$12 an hour, so something is wrong here. And they don’t have the responsibility of carrying children,” he added. Bus drivers also have to pass a physical, background check, and get a CDL license. Contractors usually cover those costs as an incentive to hire drivers. Most contractors in the area pay $9 an hour. The contractors pointed out that one way to pick up extra money is to bid on extra bus runs in the summer. “But we have to get our act together and make sure that our efforts are worth a premium,” Collins said. “Even with this we have to fairly compensated because there are contractors out there who are basically working for free just to get the bid.” Aaron said that getting drivers and contractors to join forces will not be easy. Upstate contractors get a higher fee than downstate drivers and large contractors (those with 20 or more buses) do not relate to the small contractors.

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