LANHAM — Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) bus drivers have been vocal about the conditions of the county’s transportation system and are trying to raise awareness of low pay, high rate of driver turnover, bus lot conditions and more.
A group of bus drivers, led by Roland Roy who has been a bus driver in the county for 11 years, has attended many Board of Education meetings this school year and most recently, held a protest in Lanham on May 24 in attempt to bring awareness to their less than desirable wages and work conditions.
The cornerstone of their argument comes down to their pay and hours. The drivers are paid for hours worked, and while most of them are considered full-time employees, many of them are getting less than full-time work, said Roy.
Drivers bid on a number of hours they get to work each day, and the available hours usually range from five-and-a-half to eight hours total throughout the day. If a driver has been in the county longer, it is easier to get up to eight hours a day, but this is still uncommon.
“But then a lot of drivers, if you pick a five or six-hour run, you have to get a mid-day to try to bring your hours up,” said Roy. “With your mindset, when you come in on bid day to pick, you have to look at how you’re going to get seven to eight hours to make ends meet and feed my family and do what I have to do. Drivers are already coming in stressed out.”
On top of the lack of hours comes the pay. Bus driver pay works off of a system called proration. With this system, a portion of the driver’s paycheck is withheld.
“When the drivers get their first paycheck, and they look at it, and they say I’m not really getting paid for a full hour that I’m working,” Roy said. “For example, every pay period, they keep from me like $290 for proration. So out of two checks for the month, that’s almost $600.”
Denise Brooks, a county bus driver for two years, said that her pay rate as a driver is supposed to be $20.03, but due to proration she is only paid $16.87 per hour and ends up with over $200 taken out of her monthly paycheck.
New drivers coming into the county are unaware of this system, so “things must change because we have a shortage of drivers because of this,” Brooks said.
“When drivers come in, they’re not really told that their money will be prorated,” Roy said. “The new drivers that come in now, when they come in the classroom, they’re not told about the proration, so that throws them off right then and there.
“They think they’re getting paid like normal people.”
On top of not being guaranteed more than five hours a day initially, Roy called the proration system the main reason why the county cannot maintain drivers.
“When the driver goes to other companies to work, then they work the eight hours, and they get paid for the eight hours. And that’s what we’re telling the board; you need to pay drivers.”
PGCPS tried an incentive program at the beginning of the year in an attempt to encourage drivers to come to work. It was the first incentive program the school system has done in the last 20 years, and the objective was to pay drivers extra for coming in to work each day, Roy said. They are still waiting for the results.
The lack of pay leads to drivers leaving shortly after being hired. According to Roy, at the beginning of the school year, the school system had only two routes that were not filled. By December, there were 12 unfilled routes. More drivers were brought in, but they left shortly after. Now, at the end of the school year, 12 unfilled routes remain in addition to 12 drivers who are retiring.
As a result of drivers leaving, more problems are made for the drivers who choose to stay in the county, leaving them to have to do extra routes and get pulled away from their regular destination to pick up kids from another school.
Because of this, the buses then end up being late picking up students before and after school. At Robert Goddard Montessori School, the students get out at 4 p.m. but the bus does not get there every day until close to 5 p.m., Roy said.
The physical conditions of the county’s bus lots leave a lot to be desired as well. According to Roy, at his own lot, the Goddard Bus Lot, their trailer had to be removed in 2016 due to mold infestation. They moved into Robert Goddard, where they remained for two years until they were given another trailer.
Brooks described how the drivers must wash their own buses, and many of whom are not in the physical condition to do so. The drivers are given two hours of pay to wash a bus, but they are required to buy their own supplies. If they choose not to wash the bus, they have to pay PGCPS staff to do so, Brooks said.
“Why should I have to take my $16, because you know it’s not $20.03, and wash Prince George’s County Public Schools transportation buses?” she said.
Another issue stems from the supervisors and foremen who have not made the workplace a welcoming environment, Roy said. Most of them do not have the Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) that drivers are required to have and the supervisors do not come to the bus lots to see their conditions. Many drivers end up leaving because of the supervisors, if not because of the pay.
More than anything, Brooks said she wants the school system to investigate what the bus drivers have been trying to show them.
“Fix the books, fix the funds,” she said. “We were out here saying this since March 11 when we marched up in Annapolis. Have oversight of the money from an outside source, not just in-house.”
According to Roy, Board of Education Members Edward Burroughs, David Murray, and Raaheela Ahmed have reached out to them to ask about the conditions of the bus lot, about their pay and how they have been treated by management.
Burroughs was the board member who went to the Goddard Bus Lot and had the trailer shut down because of mold. Ahmed said she rode on a bus last January and spoke to a driver who had a lot of ideas about how to improve the bus system.
“Our drivers know what needs to be changed, know the needs of what needs to be done to be able to improve our force,” Ahmed said. “And really I think we just need to sit down and strategically listen to them and figure out which recommendations we can implement to improve our service to both the employees and Prince George’s County.”
She said the first step would be creating a clear line of communication between the bus drivers and school administration to come up with solutions.
PGCPS Interim CEO Monica Goldson recently announced an employee salary restoration plan which will give eligible employees, including bus drivers, a restorative salary increase over the next three years to make up for the pay freeze that resulted from the economic recession.
However, this does not solve the entire issue, said Board of Education Chair Alvin Thornton.
To keep PGCPS employee salary on par with other jurisdictions, the Employee Compensation Task Force has been working on a report that will provide a comparison of PGCPS salaries to other school systems regionally and nationally. That will help guide the board of education’s salary decisions going forward.
“This is regionally and nationally how our employees, in this case, bus drivers, compare and if we want to keep them and not let them go to WMATA, then we’re going to have to pay them at this level, and that’s going to help us a lot,” Thornton said.
The main message that the bus drivers have been trying to send with their movement “is not to outsource their jobs and ensure that the drivers that are here are paid enough coming into the new year,” Roy said.
Otherwise, he said, a lot of drivers will end up leaving and going to places like Metro or D.C Public Schools, which in the end has a negative effect on the students in PGCPS.
“Who it’s going to affect is our precious cargo, our children, because if they outsource this work, that means you’re going to have a lot of these drivers go on early retirement, and they’ll have this CDL license, and they’ll go to other companies. Then, they’re going to be short more drivers,” said Roy.