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DCPS drivers threaten to strike

(Published August 13, 2001)

By CHRIS SMITH

Staff Writer

D.C. Public Schools bus drivers and attendants have delivered an ultimatum to school administrators: improve a payroll system that is unacceptable or prepare to lose employees.

And some of the 1,200 workers in the school system’s transportation division say they are committed to lead a work stoppage at the start of the new school year if their longtime grievances and complaints are not resolved by Sept. 4.

"If the problems are not resolved we will park the buses in September," said employee Gregory Jones.

Following their morning runs on the last day of summer school, about 100 bus drivers and attendants met Aug. 3 at the DCPS administration building, seeking answers to a variety of issues – late checks, partial checks, inadequate and disrespectful service from transportation and payroll staff members, and inaccurate documentation of sick and annual leave – that have remained unresolved during the last two years.

DCPS officials met with worker representatives in response to the complaints, acknowledged the payroll problems and committed to fixing them.

Chief Operating Officer Louis Erste established a "SWAT" team to assess issues and concerns, isolate them for resolution and recommend a process to ensure that DCPS employees receive accurate paychecks on time every payday. The team is expected to issue a preliminary report to Superintendent Paul L. Vance and the D.C. Board of Education’s Finance and Faculties Committee by Aug. 31.

Three timekeepers in the DCPS transportation division also were fired Aug. 3 for allegedly granting themselves at least $12,000 in overtime pay to which they were not entitled.

"I thought the meeting was productive," Erste said. "Some of the employees did not get the answers they wanted, but the SWAT team will pull out all of the problems one-by-one and address them so they won’t happen again in this administration.

"The timekeeping system is not right. We will look at the hours, figure out what we owe to people and get it to them."

Ron Brown, chief of Teamsters Local 639 shop stewards who was among the protesting workers, said the pay problem "is not a union issue."

"We are representing all 1,200 transportation employees in this problem," Brown said. "We are tired of getting the runaround and being bombed by the media when we do not pick up the kids. Nobody defends us when we are right."

Despite school officials’ assurances, many of the protesting DCPS transportation workers said they left unsatisfied after meeting Aug. 3 with Erste, new DCPS Chief Financial Officer Bert Molina and District IV school board member William Lockridge. They cited the school system’s unfulfilled promises in the past.

"I feel the same way I did before the meeting," said veteran bus driver Regina Davis. "The administration gave us the same answers and same lies they did four months ago. The problem is not going to be resolved. They are treating us like experimental animals implementing different systems to keep time. I can’t stay in this mess."

Most of the transportation employees at the protest said they have been crippled financially by the late and partial checks. Some have fallen behind on bill payments and collectors have implemented late fees.

"The administration tells us to keep driving, but they put us on the bottom of the barrel," said employee Julia Fitzsimmons. "We are the only ones on the government payroll having problems. They tell us, ‘Children first,’ but what about our children?"

Some of the workers cannot even pay their babysitters, said Bonita Huey. "Babysitters do not want to hear that."

A memorandum addressed to Superintendent Vance by the Teamsters Local 639 and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1959 blamed the city’s CAPPS computer system as the source of the payroll problems. The centralized system, implemented by former chief financial officer and current Mayor Anthony A. Williams, does not accurately state the annual and sick leave hours earned and used by employees.

Many of the transportation employees are placed on Leave Without Pay (LWOP) if they take their leave because of the inaccuracy of the system and this is not fair, the memorandum stated.

School officials said they plan to buy a new payroll system that caters specifically to the school system and to install computerized time clocks. Erste also established a payroll hotline to take information from bus drivers, attendants and other employees at (202) 463-2111.

Molina said the task force would resolve the issues once and for all. "We understand the issues, and we will turn around the system. The people deserve to be paid on time and accurately."

"Behavior that undermines the trust in the integrity of our timekeeping and payroll system is unacceptable," he said. "People must be paid what they are owed, when they are owed it – nothing more, nothing less."

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator