Lakeland bus drivers want better pay and improved safety standards

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A number of local bus drivers are demanding higher wages and want to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with Cold Lake Bus Lines.

Currently, Lakeland bus drivers make almost $10 less per hour than what the average driver is paid across the province, according to statistics collected by the Government of Alberta. However, the average wage is calculated to include not only school bus drivers, but city transit drivers and coaches as well.

“They’d say it’s because the cost of living is higher in cities, like Edmonton, compared to here, but that simply isn’t true,” said Joe Bourne, a spokesperson for Lakeland bus drivers who is not a bus driver himself.

Pamela Deadmarsh, a spokeswoman for Cold Lake Bus Lines, said Lakeland school bus drivers are being paid competitively and their wages align with what other school bus drivers make across the province.

Bourne is helping local drivers found the Lakeland Association of School Bus Drivers, an organization that will essentially be doing the work of a union, but doesn’t collect union dues.

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“Most of the drivers are stay-at-home moms and retired people, so the company thinks they are easy to bully,” said Bourne.

According to job advertisements on Indeed.ca for Cold Lake Bus Lines, drivers are paid $90 per day. However, when one clicks on the posting, and reads the details of the ad, it actually says drivers can make up to $90 per day.

Bourne said most drivers are not making that amount, and are, in fact, only being paid minimum wage, which is currently $15 per hour.

He said the pandemic has added more work for bus drivers and no increased pay.

“Drivers have to screen all the students; they have to keep attendance logs and there is extra cleaning,” he said.

This is in addition to drivers having to perform light maintenance on their buses, such as climbing up in the engine and topping up the oil, when there is an unfixed leak.

“They aren’t given protective equipment,” said Bourne. “There are no cameras or radios in the buses.”

Drivers are expected to use their own cell phones, which they are reimbursed $15 per month by the company.

Deadmarsh said, as a matter of provincial legislation, it would be up to local school boards to decide to put cameras on buses.

In addition to better pay, local bus drivers want better onboarding, particularly when it comes to monthly paperwork they need to complete. They also want vehicle repairs made in a timely fashion, as well as improved safety practices, such as spare buses, warmed up and ready, on frigid winter days, so in the event of a break down en route, children won’t have to be waiting long for a new ride.

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“We want to feel valued as employees and treated like professional drivers,” said a letter provided to the Cold Lake Sun that was signed by a number of local bus drivers.

A revolving door of bus drivers leading to shortages

While the bus drivers could walk off the job in protest, they want to be responsible.

“Everyone who does this job loves kids and they love the drivers,” said Bourne.

However, because of the poor working conditions, he said there is a constant revolving door of employees.

COVID-19 caused a number of bus drivers to resign right before school started in the fall, Matt Richter, Director of Transportation, for Northern Lights Public Schools, told the board of trustees in January.

Alberta’s mandatory entry-level training for drivers, which was put in place following the Humboldt bus crash, has made it difficult to recruit and train new drivers in a timely way because required training now takes as long as six weeks.

“It was the perfect storm,” said Richter at the trustee meeting on Jan. 13 about getting new drivers ready for the fall.

A shortage of bus drivers means there are fewer, but longer, routes in some areas.

Drivers laid off in 2020 because of COVID

The pandemic also brought up another concern for bus drivers. They want to know what happened to money paid to Cold Lake Bus Lines by local school boards after classes went online and drivers were laid off in April because of the pandemic.

Nicole Garner, a spokeswoman from Northern Lights Public Schools, confirmed the school board fulfilled its contractual obligations to its contractors up until the end of the school year, including Cold Lake Bus Lines.

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“Rates were reduced as per the terms of the contracts because buses were not running,” said Garner. “We did not provide our contractors with any direction on how the funds that were being paid to them were to be used,” she said.

Lakeland Catholic School District did not get back to the Cold Lake Sun on this matter before press time.

Cory Sandstra, Cold Lake Bus Lines general manager, said the partial funding received after schools were shuttered was used to keep buses and facilities ready for a return to in-class learning or in the event of an emergency.

“We are a part of many communities’ emergency evacuation plans due to the size of our fleet and ability to safely move large groups of people,” said Sandstra.

He said bus driver wages in early 2020 were supported by the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).

Job action supported by majority of drivers

Bourne estimates about 60 per cent of bus drivers have joined the Lakeland Association of Bus Drivers.

He said if collective bargaining fails, the next step will be legal action. The association has already been in contact with a labour lawyer.

“We’re not going to lose,” said Bourne.

Deadmarsh said they have yet to be contacted by the Lakeland Association of Bus Drivers about any of this and only became aware of any potential action when the Cold Lake Sun reached out to them for comment.

Sandstra said Cold Lake Bus Lines has driver representatives elected by their fellow drivers to communicate any concerns regarding regular scheduled meetings.

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“We host regular employee engagement sessions and ensure there is always open communication between the manager and the employee group.”

However, according to the letter signed by local bus drivers, employees feel their concerns have fallen on deaf ears.

“We have been lied to about how much they care about our concerns and there is no action to correct any issues we bring up,” read the letter. “Even when our new regional manager came and visited . . . he said he was going to make changes. We have yet to see any.”

Sandstra said the concerns brought up by the Cold Lake Sun’s questions have never been raised by the elected driver representative committee or taken to a manager.

“We will be hosting a driver representative committee meeting this week to ensure this feedback is brought to light and addressed accordingly,” said Sandstra last Wednesday.

Cold Lake Bus Lines is a subsidiary of Pacific Western Transportation, as is Southland Transportation, a company that drives 50,000 children to school in Alberta every morning.

According to a 2019 Press Progress article, Southland used a secret scorecard to single out workers who may have held pro-union sentiments in the past.

Bourne said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Cold Lake Bus Lines use similar tactics to halt the Association’s efforts for fair pay, and he is prepared to deal with such corporate strategies.

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