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School bus drivers seek legislators’ support for jobless aid during summers

Larry Catlett speaks to a legislative panel on unemployment insurance for school bus drivers at the Sedgwick County Courthouse on Tuesday evening. The bill, pertaining to unemployment benefits for privately contracted school bus drivers between academic years, was a hot topic at Tuesday’s legislative forum. (Jan. 6, 2015)
Larry Catlett speaks to a legislative panel on unemployment insurance for school bus drivers at the Sedgwick County Courthouse on Tuesday evening. The bill, pertaining to unemployment benefits for privately contracted school bus drivers between academic years, was a hot topic at Tuesday’s legislative forum. (Jan. 6, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

School bus drivers on Tuesday asked south-central Kansas legislators to support a proposed bill that would make them eligible for unemployment benefits during the summer months when children are off school.

The bill, which has been pre-filed as SB-3, would remove language from the current unemployment law that makes privately contracted school bus drivers ineligible for benefits between academic years.

Now, bus drivers are denied if they have a contract or a “reasonable assurance” of re-employment when school resumes.

But to Linda Saucedo, a bus driver for six years, and others who attended a public forum Tuesday night at the Sedgwick County Courthouse, it’s not about “reasonable assurance” that there will be work in the fall.

It’s about feeding families and paying bills during the off-season.

“The question is not ‘Why do we deserve unemployment?’ It’s ‘why are we getting denied these benefits?’” she told more than 20 state representatives and senators, many from Sedgwick County, where Wichita is the state’s largest public school district.

“At the end of June, we no longer have work,” she said.

“Contractors, subcontractors, construction workers – they’re all seasonal. When they don’t have anymore work they are laid off and they can collect. We seem to be the only employees unable to collect.”

Linda Coster, another bus driver, agreed. She said she, like many drivers, return to their jobs year after year because “we love our kids and we love our jobs.” But that the lack of benefits, she said, puts unnecessary stress on families, especially when the bus driver is the breadwinner of the household.

“We have pregnant women, single parents, single mothers who can’t get help, they can’t get help anywhere,” Coster said. “... It’s not fair. How are they supposed to feed their kids? We have elderly who are 75 years old, working because they need that extra income.”

Scharlene Porchia-Washington, who works for First Student, the busing company that transports students in the Wichita school district, said she thought unemployment benefits would help reduce turnover and “ensure those drivers who are dedicated to their jobs and the children return for the next school year.”

Kyle Hacker said access to benefits is a matter of fairness because bus drivers, too, are taxpayers.

“We put into the unemployment system through work and other jobs that we’ve had, but we do not have access to the money that has been put in,” Hacker said.

The bill is expected to be introduced during the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 12. It is sponsored by Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita.

The proposed changes to the law would affect privately contracted school bus drivers only. Bus drivers employed directly by a school district would continue to be prohibited from obtaining unemployment benefits over the summer, Faust-Goudeau said.

Of about 100 others who attended Tuesday’s forum in downtown Wichita, many brought their familiar complaints about police transparency, including demands that each Wichita police officer be equipped with a body camera. There also were calls for expansions to Medicaid and for the legalization of medical marijuana. One woman asked for more funding for public defenders. Another asked for laws that would allow immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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