Lee County school bus drivers facing punishment for Monday absence

Reporter: Breana Ross Writer: Matthew Seaver
Published: Updated:

Lee County school’s east zone recovering from 83 bus drivers calling out sick Monday. On Tuesday, Lee County’s east zone only had 13 drivers out.

That sick-out left many parents frustrated and scrambling to pick their kids up from school, with some unable to get them there in the first place.

A lot of parents who normally wouldn’t pick up their kids did so on Monday because of the bus driver sick-out.

The sick-out is over, but the stress of what happened still sticks with some parents.

On Tuesday, it was business as usual again at east zone bus compounds. Dozens of bus drivers were back behind the wheel.

But the uncertainty from Monday’s sick out still lingers with Lee County parent Sheilanjellie Torres King. She doesn’t have her own car and she said Monday’s sick-out forced her to keep her kids home again on Tuesday. “I couldn’t go through the hassle at the time. Right now I have another son here as well. And it’s just, it’s a lot in the mornings. So I just kept her home today.”

Torres King said she feels for the drivers who are overwhelmed by the shortage, but she worries her daughter won’t have a ride to school if drivers don’t show up again. “I mean, I did have issues before getting her to school, and we had to arrange for a bus to pick her up,” said Torres King.

Lee County schools say parents don’t have to worry about another strike or sick out. Rob Spicker, a spokesperson for Lee County schools, told WINK News the district will address drivers’ concerns about working conditions and pay. Then the district will hold the drivers who didn’t drive on Monday as scheduled accountable.

“We will look into potential discipline against some of those drivers who organized it because it’s a contract violation and a violation of the law so that’s one thing I would tell the parents is this isn’t the kind of behavior that is tolerated and it is not allowed so we are going to try to put a stop to it that way,” said Spicker.

Punishment can range from a written reprimand to termination. It all depends on drivers’ disciplinary records.

The president of the support staff union who represents those bus drivers told WINK News she does not condone the driver sick-out, but drivers are tired and the district needs to treat them better.

No one feels the impact of a bus driver shortage more than the bus drivers themselves. Long hours, combined routes and more kids to get to and from school are stories Jamie Michael, the support personnel association of Lee County hears all the time. “They want compensation to reflect the hard work that they do. They get up at 3:30 in the morning, they’re not finished until seven some,” said Michael. “They want respect.”

But the driver shortage has stretched from August into October with no relief. A group of drivers – 83 of them in the east zone  – hoped to get the attention of people in charge of Lee County schools by staging a sick out.

“They had our attention before this. I think what they now have is the attention of parents who are very upset that bus drivers didn’t come to work,” said Rob Spicker, spokesperson for Lee County schools.

Lee County parent Torres King said while she didn’t appreciate the bus not showing up Monday, she wants the district to do whatever it takes to keep drivers behind the wheel. “I just feel like, if they don’t really want a shortage, they should listen to their employees.”

The district sent an email to drivers Tuesday afternoon promising to schedule meetings to discuss possible solutions. They also say they sent KN-95 masks to the bus compounds so the drivers are better protected from COVID-19.

As for a pay raise, the union said that can’t happen until the school board gives its okay.

“Until they give the district’s team bargaining authorities, we can’t even talk about money because there’s no money there,” said Michael.

That union rep said there are plans in the works for drivers to get a $1,000 bonus in December.

She said she hopes drivers will hang in there so the union can fight for more pay and better benefits.

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