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Bus drivers want a raise: Kokomo School bus drivers rally for raises amid COVID-19 concerns

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TRANSPORT — Kokomo School Corp. bus drivers stand in front of the bus fleet last week. Drivers are asking for raises in the hopes of attracting new employees.

Kokomo School Corp. bus drivers are pushing for raises as they work amid what they perceive as unfair working conditions, which they say have worsened since returning to work after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A group of 34 school bus drivers recently sent a letter to the Kokomo School Corp. Board of Trustees requesting raises and addressing understaffing issues and working conditions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the letter, the group stated that they believed the pandemic has cost the corporation “numerous drivers,” raising concerns of wait-times for students as winter approaches. The letter also stated that the group is the lowest-paid transportation service for public schools in the area.

According to Maryelyn Porter, a driver for Kokomo schools, raises would help to attract and retain new drivers, something she said was desperately needed.

“It’s probably not a big enough step to get new drivers. It’ll get some, but as long as no one else keeps upping it, it’s a lot of work trying to catch up. And it’s really hard because anyone new is going to get overwhelmed really fast,” she said. “It’s not because it’s that difficult of a job; it’s just a lot at first. It takes a little bit to get in the rhythm. [Raises would be] a step at least in the right direction.”

According to Kokomo School Corp., most Kokomo School Corporation bus drivers are hired to drive six hours per day at an hourly rate that starts at $15.73

As full-time employees, the drivers have a benefits package available to them that includes health/vision/dental medical insurance, long-term disability insurance, and group term life insurance. The corporation also pays into Indiana’s Public Employee Retirement Fund (PERF) pension benefit on behalf of the bus drivers at a rate of 14.2 percent of their earnings each pay period.

In addition, the bus drivers are allowed to participate a 403b annuity plan, and, for participants, the corporation will match up to 1.5 percent of their pay into a 401a account. In February this year, bus drivers received an hourly raise of 2 percent, and the school board previously also approved an additional 2 percent hourly wage increase in February 2021.

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However, Porter said the wages still were too low.

“We are among the lowest-paid transportation personnel in our area and also among the lowest percentile of our state,” read the letter submitted to the school board and signed by 34 drivers. “ … We are here to kindly request a pay raise from $15.73 an hour to $18 per hour and at least a $0.25 yearly raise beginning from our hire date.”

Starting hourly wages of Kokomo Schools drivers are lower than three of four the Howard County schools, according to numbers provided by those districts. Eastern School Corp. bus drivers start at $15 an hour. Western bus drivers are paid $20 an hour, Northwestern $18.63, and Taylor $20.31 an hour.

Several of the Kokomo drivers attended the Kokomo Schools board meeting on Nov. 5 and were addressed by Kokomo School Corporation Superintendent Dr. Jeff Hauswald.

“We appreciate the bus drivers being at tonight’s board meeting and for not disrupting our day-to-day operations,” Hauswald said. “Our corporation officials continuously work on reviewing and improving our efficiencies. Also, we continue to try to find ways to increase compensation for all employees based upon the difficult challenges we face. I regret that property tax caps have created serious fiscal shortfalls in the State of Indiana related to educational operations, which includes transportation services.”

As the drivers continue to work, Porter said she and other drivers may consider reaching out to American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which, in part, represents city bus drivers.

“I don’t think it would’ve gotten to this point if we had been taken seriously,” Porter said. “But it’s not a threat or intimidation. It’s just difficult times.”