Keeping bus drivers at the wheel

Farmington resident hopes unemployment compensation for school bus drivers will improve retention

by Jennifer Chick
Sun Thisweek

One Farmington school bus driver hopes to change unemployment compensation to include school bus drivers who are not employed in the summer.

Kathy Plumley of Farmington drives a school bus for Durham School Services, a bus company that provides buses for Burnsville-Savage-Eagan District 191. She has been driving a school bus for four years after retiring from IBM.

With no unemployment benefits available during the summer months, Plumley watches as many of her fellow trained school bus drivers leave in the spring to find other jobs.

“We have a lot, a lot, of single parents that decide to get their CDL licenses to drive school bus,” she says, “and I’m seeing them start to leave. I think that’s not right. Those kids are more special than that.”

She says the lack of unemployment benefits causes high turnover in a career where students need consistency. School bus drivers don’t only transport students, she said, they pass on observations to teachers, serve as spokespersons for the school system and are the first authority figures students encounter each morning.

“The positive (or negative) atmosphere on the bus can set the tone for the rest of the day,” Plumley wrote in a draft petition she hopes to circulate to gain support for her idea.

Plumley can’t understand why construction workers, landscapers, and even, in some cases, entertainment workers, like actors, stagehands, television producers, ballet dancers, and opera singers, can collect unemployment compensation between seasons when bus drivers can’t for the two months they are unemployed.

On Feb. 1, Plumley and two fellow bus drivers, Kim Johnson, Plumley’s daughter, who also drives for Durham School Services, and Chris Rinehart, who drives for Marschall Lines out of Farmington, met with state Rep. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington.

According to Plumley, Garofalo said he would do some research into the issue in other states.

“He’s going to pursue it,” Plumley said. “He was so wonderful, not just to listen to us and take time out of his schedule, but saying that he and his staff will do some work.”

Garofalo said it’s unlikely the law will change because of cost.

“If the economy were better and things were going well, it would be an easier sell,” Garofalo said in a phone conversation. “I just don’t see the money there to pay for it. When you expand the pool. Someone’s got to pay for it.”

“We’re not the federal government,” he said. “We can’t just print money to pay for everything.”

But, he will study the issue, optimistic that there might be other ways to help those drivers who are struggling.

“We always want our kids bused by the most competent people,” Garofalo said.

Plumley first learned of unemployment compensation from Wisconsin bus drivers who were subbing for Durham. Those bus drivers said under Wisconsin law, they are eligible to receive unemployment compensation during the summer.

Durham School Services is the nation’s second largest student school transportation provider, working in 32 states. In some of those other states, the company’s school bus drivers do receive unemployment compensation.

Plumley said with her small pension, Medicare and Social Security, she can stretch her budget to fill the summer months, but for other bus drivers, that’s just not possible.

“It’s breaking my heart that they end up going to other companies that will provide 12 months employment,” she said. “It’s hard on the drivers, it’s hard on the aides, it’s hard on the students.”

Plumley drives a bus for students with special needs.

“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “When one of the kids looks at you and says, ‘I love you. Can we play some music?’ It makes it all worthwhile. It’s a good profession.”