DECATUR — Alltown Bus Service owner Greg Polan and United Steelworkers Local 837-1, the union representing the bus drivers, attendants and mechanics will meet tonight for further contract talks.
The union has been without a contract with Skokie-based Alltown since June, and talks have been ongoing without a resolution. On Aug. 28, the union voted to authorize strike should talks fail.
“Hopefully, this (meeting) will be it,” Union representative Sally Roddy said. “We'll be at it until we can get something resolved or he decides he's done (negotiating). The union is in the process of getting our ducks in a row and being prepared to strike, getting picket times and dates set up.”
Roddy said a strike is a last resort, and school district spokeswoman Maria Robertson said in August that if the union does strike, replacement drivers will be recruited and parents will be notified that bus service could be slower during that time.
Polan declined to comment on the meeting.
Amid negotiations, fliers advertising for new bus drivers have been seen throughout Decatur. Billboards advertising for drivers have been up since Alltown's contract with Decatur School District was approved at the March 28 school board meeting.
Roddy contended there is a driver shortage, but Polan said his roster is full and hiring is a regular part of his business, which can see high levels of turnover.
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The district had asked for a higher starting wage for bus drivers of $15 per hour, an increase over the $11 per hour starting wage they were receiving in the 2016-17 school year. Alltown's bid was lower than First Student, which had requested a $650,000 increase to cover added wages.
“We were short on drivers last year,” Roddy said. “The difference is that First Student is such a large corporation that they were able to bring in drivers from outside of town (to fill shortages).”
To cover the routes, Roddy said, drivers are coming in early, doubling up routes, and office workers and mechanics are driving routes. She said the job isn't for everyone, so shortages aren't uncommon, but being down this early in the school year is somewhat unusual.
“We did start off with an abundance of drivers,” Roddy said. “(Polan) was confident they'd keep hiring, and we wouldn't have these issues, and here it is October and they're short of drivers because so many people have quit.”
Polan disagreed that the company is short of drivers, saying he has plenty, but for many reasons he is always looking for more.
“Drivers quit, it's always part of the bus business,” Polan said. “We do this on a regular basis. We hire new drivers, and they don't realize what it's like to be a bus driver and they don't last, and we replace drivers who aren't coming in.
"It's one of our best branches, and we're very happy working in Decatur.”