School bus drivers lobby for unemployment benefits over summer break

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"As a parent, wouldn't you want good quality personnel looking over your children?" said Bobby Thomas, a former school bus driver in Wichita. 
School bus drivers who work for private companies, like First Student in Wichita, say it's time they became eligible for unemployment over the summer break.

This is the time of year when school bus drivers start thinking about how they're going to pay the bills over the summer.  And every year, private companies like drivers with expensive training to more permanent jobs.

Attempts to change the law this year have stalled out.  Barring a Hail Mary success when lawmakers go back to work in May, getting unemployment rights for school bus drivers likely won't have a chance until next year.

"It's not fair at all," said Thomas.

While Thomas had his retirement from another job to cover the summers, many of his co-workers didn't.. 

"I had folks coming to me asking if there's anything that I could do or suggest, or if the union could help them," Thomas said.

He added, come April every year, dozens of school bus drivers who work for private companies contracted to school districts like Wichita, Topeka, and Lawrence, start seeking other jobs to pay the bills.

"Without money, a lot of them, they just... a lot of them really can't survive," he said.

And a lot of them don't come back after the summer's over, drivers First Student told lawmakers it cost them $3,000 a piece to train.

"There's a retention issue with school bus drivers in Kansas.  People aren't coming back," said Matt Hall with the Teamsters Union in Kansas. The Teamsters represent the school bus drivers who work for private busing companies.  "They can't make ends meet when they work. They're finding other jobs in the summers.  In Wichita, alone, I believe they were 20% short of the amount of bus drivers they need last school year.  So the issue's not going to go away."

Thomas and the Teamsters asked Senator Oletha Faust-Goudeau to help.  She's introduced a bill multiple times to change state law.   The bus drivers say say, they're unfairly singled out.

"Private school bus employees are the only job classification in the statute that is singled out.," Hall said.  "Every surrounding state allows them to have unemployment benefits."

Even adult paras or aides who ride the bus to help out can get unemployment over the summer, as well as janitors who work for private companies contracted with school districts.

Hall added, he doesn't know why the law treats bus drivers differently.

"We asked that question. Legislative services could not find the answer to it," he said.  "It was done in the 80s."

 "They should be able to receive unemployment benefits because First Student pays into the unemployment system.  So their personnel should be able to collect it," Thomas said.  "The good quality drivers, receiving unemployment, that would keep them there."

Senator Faust-Goudeau says, while the bill did stall out this year, she's highly confident it will pass next year.  During a hearing before the Kansas Senate Commerce Committee last month, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce was the only group to come out against the bill.

Faust-Goudeau believes they've addressed all the concerns the Chamber raised.

"They deserve that," Thomas said.  "Wouldn't you want your children looked over by someone responsible?  By someone professional?"