The Ottumwa Courier

September 16, 2013

Driving a hard bargain

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — The school bus company says they're offering a big pay raise. The drivers are saying their complaint is not about money.

In the Ottumwa school district, bus drivers and buses are supplied by a contractor, Southern Iowa Transit. That company owns the school buses. When their contract runs out, they offer a bid to the district, which the district can accept or decline. In other southeast Iowa districts, the tendency is for the schools to hire their own bus drivers. As support personnel, their benefits packages are based on those of other employees, like teachers or teacher associates.

Ottumwa bus drivers and Southern Iowa Transit appear to be facing challenging negotiations. Now that those drivers have unionized, a union negotiator acts to get the drivers a compensation package they consider acceptable. The drivers say they don't want a "disruption in service" but that there is a possibility that could happen if a contract isn't agreed upon.

Both the company and the union sent the Courier different figures for what surrounding districts pay their drivers. Yet checking public records showed both lists were correct: The company numbers show that when figuring pay hourly, Ottumwa pays toward the top of the list. The union numbers show that when looking at salary annually, Ottumwa pays at the lower end of the list.

Southern Iowa Transit says they have offered a negotiated pay increase of 18 percent.

But that's not the main issue, drivers said. At recent meeting, drivers said when it comes to items like time off, they are way behind. The company does not dispute the union claim that benefits are lower than neighboring districts.

In general, SIT company figures show if a part-time employee isn't working, they aren't getting paid. But drivers at a recent school board meeting said it's a matter of respect. As one example, they said, if a bus driver is going to a funeral for a loved one or taking a couple of days to grieve, shouldn't they be paid? They may be part-time workers, but so are drivers in other, smaller communities.

To continue that one example, drivers in other districts average five days of paid bereavement leave; Southern Iowa Transit has offered one paid day, two unpaid days. The union asked for three paid days. There are other issues, too, but none are insurmountable, said Jon Thomas, a business agent and organizer for Teamsters Local 238.

"We believe that the union, the Teamsters, have bargained in good faith and tried to come to a reasonable resolution, and we have not been able to reach that resolution," he said. "We feel that if the company sits down and bargains in good faith on Wednesday, we won't have any disruption in services."

When asked what he'd like to tell the public, Southern Iowa Transit co-owner Jerry Kjer said he and his business partner are ready to meet with driver representatives.

"Do know that we want to see this resolved, and we remain optimistic and positive," said Kjer. "We are of the hope that we will get a resolution; my partner and I have invested a lot of time in negotiations and have made what we feel is our best offer, and they rejected that. But, as I said, we're still optimistic we can reach an agreement without [negotiations] having any adverse impact on day-to-day operations."

As far as resources go, Kjer said, there's only so much Southern Iowa Transit has available to use for operating the service. Their contract with the district is fixed for the next two years. They can't call their customer and ask for more money.

Yet money isn't necessarily the obstacle some people think it is. At least, not the overall payroll amount.

"Where we are now on negotiations is not necessarily money," said Thomas. "It's the attendance policy, leave of absence and how the money is distributed."

By how the money is distributed, he said, he means that the "pool" of money in the payroll is not the issue.

"It's how it's distributed to the 28 drivers."

The two parties are scheduled to meet Wednesday.

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark