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Seattle School Bus Drivers Strike Again Over Health And Retirement Benefits

Brie Ripley
Seattle school bus drivers hold signs Thursday morning on Lake City Way. They are on strike over health and retirement benefits.

(Updated at 3:35 pm to add comments from school bus driver Alex Bergstrom and First Student executive Kim Mingo.)

About 400 Seattle school bus drivers went on strike Thursday. The work stoppage stems from a dispute with their employer, First Student, over health and retirement benefits.

This past summer, the drivers reopened part of their contract to negotiate those benefits with a big focus on health coverage for part-time drivers. 

But the Seattle school board knew as early as February of last year that the issue could lead to a strike.

The school board had asked First Student how much extra those benefits would cost. At a February 2017 meeting, the board voted to approve a new contract with First Student. But they did not pay the additional amount because of a $74 million deficit the district faced at the time.

School district Logistics Director Kathy Katterhagen told the board at the time the decision could lead to a labor dispute. 

The drivers are represented by Teamsters Local 174. Teamsters spokeswoman Jamie Fleming says the bus company should only have presented a proposal that included enough money for health benefits.

"Ultimately the responsibility is still on First Student in that they knew they had this opener coming, so why would they even submit a bid that didn't include health care costs when they knew they'd have to pay them?" Fleming said.

Seattle school bus drivers hold signs during a one-day strike in November 2017.

Thursday's action follows a one-day strike in November. The bus company has since offered to provide health insurance to part-time drivers, but the union says it's still problematic because coverage for dependents is too expensive. 

Alex Bergstrom, who's been driving a school bus for the company for five years, said health insurance is important for the drivers because sitting for so many hours a day takes a toll on the body. 

"Many of our drivers end up getting affected with lower joint issues, and it’s to a point where with no real decent health care, many of them end up drowning in debt," Bergstrom said.

First Student said in a statement that the latest offer is fair and equitable and covers 80 percent of health premiums for part-time workers. Kim Mingo, the company's senior director of human resources and labor relations, said she would like for the two sides to return to the bargaining table to find a resolution. 

"The ball is in their court," she said. "They rejected our offer, they refused to provide us with a counter offer and they basically told me that negotiating, continuing would not be fruitful.”

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.