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Hundreds Of SFUSD School Bus Drivers Laid Off Due To 'Non-Service' During Pandemic

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) - All of the bus drivers who transport children to and from schools in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) are being laid off, effective August 31, according to Sharon Chappill.

Chappill has been a school bus driver for 38 years and is president of SMART, Local 1741, the union that represents bus drivers, dispatchers and other staff.

"This is my layoff notice," said Chappill, holding up a letter.

Chappill confirms all 249 school bus drivers are now receiving layoff notices. She said many are wrought with emotion.

"They're crying, of course," Chappill said. "I'm short of crying right now. Because they don't know what to do."

Chappill says despite budget cuts, other school districts are still paying their drivers.

But SFUSD, which contracts out its bus services to a company called First Student, Inc., has decided not to go that route.

"As SFUSD continues to face budget shortfalls due to chronic underfunding, growing expenditures and reduced revenues, SFUSD cannot afford to continue paying for non-service. We must prioritize our students, families and staff," SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick said in a statement.

Describing First Student as a "for-profit publicly traded multinational corporation," the SFUSD spokesperson went on to note that the district continued to pay the bus company through July 30.

"The district pays First Student approximately $30 million annually to bus approximately 3,500 SFUSD students. Since the COVID-19 school building closures began last March, SFUSD has not needed any transportation services, yet the District continued to pay First Student the equivalent of salary and benefits for its drivers and staff through July 30. This amounted to $6.4 million that SFUSD paid First Student even when no student services were being provided," Dudnick said.

Paul Stein has been a driver for 49 years with First Student and its predecessors. He said SFUSD's decision hits hard during the pandemic.

"Except for the first few years, we had health insurance and it's never lapsed," said Stein. "This is the first time that's happening now that I'm 71-years-old and more susceptible to catching the virus."

First Student spokesperson Jen Biddinger said the company was forced to lay off workers when the District stopped payment.

"Despite our urging, the district has decided to forgo funding student transportation at this time. As a result, we are not receiving payment from SFUSD, which means it is in the best interest of our employees to file for unemployment or seek employment elsewhere," Biddinger said in a statement. "We hope the district reconsiders its decision."

SMART Local 1741 union leaders are planning a rally on the steps of San Francisco City Hall at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday to draw attention to the plight of the drivers, dispatchers and staffers who are being laid off.

"To be told that you're going to lose your healthcare and you're going to be unemployed in the middle of a pandemic," said Jader Castano, a bus driver and union leader. "I just think it's immoral. The people that you entrust with transporting your children -- you're going to throw that driver under the bus!"

Castano told KPIX that late Monday evening, a First Student official reached out and promised the union the company will now extend health benefits to the laid off workers for one extra month, until the end of September.

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