Stanly County bus drivers threaten strike over pay, working conditions

Published 12:17 pm Friday, October 29, 2021

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Stanly County Schools bus drivers are planning to organize a county-wide strike beginning Monday if the district does not increase their base pay to align with what drivers make in surrounding counties.

The current starting pay for bus drivers is $13.07 an hour but drivers want it to be increased to $15, according to Kimberly Carpenter, a 23-year veteran with the southern district who is helping to organize the effort.

Hiking up the starting pay to $15 would put the school system on a similar level to other districts. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools drivers, for instance, currently make $15.75 though it will increase to $17.75 beginning next month, while the starting pay for drivers with Union County Schools is $16.75 an hour, according to WCNC Charlotte. 

Carpenter said drivers also want to receive a one-time hazard duty pay in the range of $1,000 to $1,500, something she said was already given to teachers last school year and was part of the COVID relief package Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law in February. He proposed one-time bonuses for all kinds of school personnel, including $1,500 for non-certified public school employees.

Carpenter said support staff like bus drivers in other counties have already received bonuses.

“I want them (SCS) to know that we are all working parts,” Carpenter said. “The teachers are important…they have to be here to teach the kids. But we are all working parts of one mechanism and if one part is not treated fairly…then without that part, the other parts can’t run.”

As of now, there is no timeline for how long the strike would last, Carpenter said.

On Wednesday morning, after she had spoken with the SNAP, Carpenter emailed comments to Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis and school board members detailing what she and other drivers wanted to see from the district in order to prevent a strike.

“I am trying to tell you, if something isn’t done, as far as, a pay increase AND a Covid hazard bonus by Monday, 11/1/2021,” she wrote, “then a majority of the drivers of Stanly County will not be driving buses but will be striking to get what we deserve.”

Dennis issued a statement shortly before noon Friday.

“We understand the frustrations of our staff as it pertains to issues involving pay and their duties,” Dennis wrote. “The district has been looking into ways to incentivize our classified staff in the future within budgetary constraints. We are also hoping that the state will soon pass a budget that will fund an increase in pay for employees. My staff and I always welcome the opportunity for open communication with staff members concerning any issues with their specific positions.”

Dennis did not address the possibility of a strike in his statement.

There have been other school districts in the state, including Wake and Forsyth counties, where bus drivers have at least threatened walkouts this week over pay disputes.

Even before the pandemic, there were not enough drivers in the district but once Covid hit, the issue has only exacerbated, Carpenter said. Many local bus drivers have contracted the coronavirus and one driver died.

As a mother and grandmother, the threat of catching the virus and possibly infecting her family is always on Carpenter’s mind. Though she enjoys being a bus driver and interacting with students, “I still have to look out for my health as well as my family’s health.”

In SCS, only around 78 percent of substitute teachers are filling vacant positions, down from around 99 percent before the pandemic. The district is looking to hire at least two bus driver positions and four custodians.

Tracie Wood works as a safety monitor on an Exceptional Children’s bus, where she assists with the safety, movement, management and care of students with special needs, and as a substitute teacher. She begins her day around 5:30 a.m. and finishes about 12 hours later. She will be one of the people taking part in the strike if it occurs.

Wood feels like bus drivers and other classified staff have been taken for granted and have not been given proper respect. As far as she is aware, it has been at least four years since classified staff last received a pay raise.

“It’s almost as if we are the forgotten bunch,” Wood said.

The lack of drivers has resulted in many of Stanly’s bus routes becoming “double runs,” in which drivers have to build in extra time to pick up and drop off two different groups of students at each school, Carpenter said. Other school employees such as teacher assistants, custodians and teachers are driving buses, though they all have certified licenses, she said.

Since the pandemic, bus drivers have had to help out in other ways beyond transporting students to and from school. When the pandemic first hit, drivers were asked to come into the schools to help pack meals and then deliver them to students, Carpenter said. Drivers also have to clean and sanitize their buses twice a day.

“We’re having to keep up with a lot of extra paperwork that we’re not used to keeping up with,” she said, noting drivers are keeping tabs of which students are riding in the mornings and which ones are riding in the afternoon.

Carpenter understands a strike would likely place a burden upon many parents who rely on the transportation and she feels for them.

“I don’t want to put the kids out and I don’t want to put any parents out,” she said. “There are a lot of parents that rely on the bus and the drivers.”

But, she said, the bus drivers are simply exhausted and want to see more recognition from the district.

“We’re all tired of getting walked all over. We’re all tired of being put on the back burner.”

About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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