Edmonds School District bus drivers protest after losing health care benefits

Edmonds School District bus drivers rallied in front of Meadowdale High School urging the district to reinstate their health care benefits.

Bus drivers for the Edmonds School District rallied in Lynnwood Tuesday, urging the district to reinstate the health care plans they say were taken away despite state legislation passed to protect them.

Around a dozen drivers waving signs in front of Meadowdale High School said they were protesting the district’s decision to terminate the health coverage of its 175 school bus drivers, stating that doing so in the middle of a pandemic has left many of them – and their families — at risk.

Martha Beltran has been driving an Edmonds School District bus for five years. She is also a single mother with three kids who received health coverage through her job. With no coverage for her or her children, Beltran said she is struggling.

“I just went to get my oldest (son) glasses, because he’s partially blind and it’s going to cost me $400 out of pocket,” she said.

When the district decided to switch to remote learning for the fall as a result of the pandemic, bus drivers were left without work and no idea when they would be returning. Initially, drivers were told in the middle of August they were laid off because there would be no students to transport to and from school and reductions had been made to transportation funding. Not long after, they received a letter informing them their positions — as well as their health benefits — had been eliminated.

Drivers and supporters lined 168th Street Southwest in Lynnwood with signs supporting district school bus drivers.

In March, Washington state lawmakers passed ESSB 6189, which required school districts to continue to pay the portion of health benefits for all school employees who were eligible for them on or before Feb. 29, 2020.

“We understand losing the job is temporary, but the state came out with ESSB 6189 and it’s a law that was amended to say that in this pandemic the district must provide health care benefits that (employees) qualified for before the pandemic,” said bus driver Bill Whalen.

Drivers also pointed to the terminology used in the district’s communications with bus drivers. In the initial email, drivers were told they were laid off, which would still make them eligible for health coverage. But by using the word “eliminate” in the letter sent out Aug. 19, the district is able to avoid paying for drivers’ health coverage, said bus driver Christina Walker.

“If we’d been furloughed or laid off like all the other school districts and all the other drivers, we’d still have our health benefits, but since they (the district) said ‘eliminated,’ they don’t have to cover our benefits,” she said. “When it suits their purposes, so they don’t have to pay us, we’re terminated, then when they want us back, we’re just laid off.”

The Edmonds School District did not respond to requests for a statement.

When their benefits were cut, drivers were told they would be contacted to discuss alternative options for receiving health care. According to Walker, no one has reached out to them. Additionally, drivers were required to attend their mandatory start-of-the-year in-service training, which was held remotely from Aug. 26-28. However, she said they were told beforehand that they would not be able to ask questions during the training.

Though students won’t need to be shuttled to and from schools, Walker said there are other jobs bus drivers could do until schools reopen. Last month, the governor issued a proclamation prohibiting school districts from restricting a school’s ability to use current transportation funds for other purposes. Under the proclamation, districts could use transportation funds to pay for buses and drivers to deliver meals, technology and other educational resources and materials to students. It also stated drivers could transport students to and from learning centers.

Over the summer, bus drivers delivered free grab-and-go meals to families who could not access any of the district’s meal sites on their own. Now, Walker said that job has been given to paraeducators and other staff.

Amid drivers’ concerns about job security and the loss of health insurance, the issue has also taken an emotional toll on drivers who are unable to interact with students they are used to seeing regularly throughout the year.

“I see my kids whom I’ve been driving for three years straight since I became a permanent bus driver, and I hate when I see them because they cry,” Beltran said. “It gets very depressing.”

–Story and photos by Cody Sexton

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