Boston school bus drivers, mechanics, and other labor allies picketed Tuesday, demanding robust coronavirus-related safety measures on buses, vaccinations and testing at the bus yards, and the restoration of full pay and benefits that have been cut during the pandemic.
“While the pandemic continues to infect our families and communities at high rates, it is an OUTRAGE that political misleaders are forcing us — under threat of termination — to reopen BPS and load thousands of more students onto our busses in the winter without offering us frontline school workers regular COVID-19 Testing and Vaccinations at the yards, a guaranteed trained monitor, and other Emergency Safety Operating Procedures per agreements,” Boston School Bus Drivers’ Union leaders wrote on an advertisement for Tuesday’s picket line and car caravan.
Tuesday’s event was held outside the Dorchester location of Transdev, the company that oversees the bus yards and buses for the Boston Public Schools. The advertisement for the event encouraged members to “bring your noise, your union mask, and your outrage!”
“We need to protect the lives of all the people,” Andre Francois, the union’s president, told The Boston Globe Monday night. “We love doing our job: carrying the children of Boston.”
Francois stressed that the union action would not interfere with transporting students to and from school on Tuesday.
“It’s not a strike,” he said. “It’s more of an informational picket and rally.”
The school system’s transportation workers have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus. Three active bus drivers and a retiree died from the virus in the spring, and a human resource specialist for Transdev also died of COVID-19. The bus drivers’ union said that among bus drivers, monitors, mechanics, and safety dispatch workers, there have been nearly 40 coronavirus cases since Oct. 1, 2020.
BPS and Transdev, in a joint statement on Tuesday, said they had collaborated closely to create coronavirus-related policies, including frequent cleaning and sanitation efforts and social distancing on buses. The district has also offered weekly COVID-19 testing for bus drivers and monitors at a “centralized location.” (The bus drivers union wants testing at the bus yards.)
“The health and safety of our employees, passengers and the communities we serve remain the highest priority of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) and Transdev. We are extremely proud of our employees and what they have been doing to ensure essential services for our region,” their statement read.
The district says it has also been working to get information to bus workers about opportunities to get vaccinated. Bus employees are eligible to sign up for vaccine appointments at any of the state’s vaccination sites, starting on March 11, along with other K-12 educators, child-care workers, and school staff members.
BPS officials have held information sessions about vaccines in both English and Haitian Creole and they’ve helped some bus drivers book vaccine appointments at Tufts Medical Center, the district said.
Union leaders say, however, that the district and Transdev have been “throwing Safety Protocols like required adult monitors and physical distancing on school busses out the window and under the bus in their reckless and negligent speed to reopen their economy,” they wrote in a press release ahead of Tuesday’s event.
The Boston school system is in the midst of having students return for hybrid learning, starting with high needs and lower elementary school grade students. Students in grades 4 through 8 are expected to return to in-person learning next week, and high school students are slated to return at the end of March and early April.
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, attended Tuesday’s picket in solidarity with the bus workers; some of the paraprofessionals in Tang’s union are also bus monitors.
She said with more students returning to school buildings, there have been concerns that there aren’t enough bus monitors to enforce social distancing and ensure that students keep the windows open for proper ventilation. When there are gaps in safety measures for anyone interacting with students, it affects everyone in the system, she said.
“We all want to see our students back at school. We all want to be back at work, and it needs to be done in the safest way possible,” she said. “We are all one community.”
In a press conference on Tuesday, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh — President Biden’s nominee for labor secretary — did not directly respond to the union’s picket or to their concerns, but he thanked bus drivers for their hard work. Their on-time performance rate for the past two weeks has been about 97 percent, Walsh said.
“They have a difficult job,” Walsh said. “People don’t realize how difficult their job is either.”