With more than 4,000 jobs at risk, school bus drivers demand to get back on the road
By Pedro Correa Henry
Special to The Star
“If we do not get these dominos out of the way, which today we have the opportunity to do, unfortunately, our children, our offspring, our grandchildren will suffer the consequences of those who could do something today and did nothing.”
This is what Puerto Rico School Bus Drivers Federation President José Rosado Rolón told the Star on Wednesday as more than 300 school buses gathered in front of the Capitol to demand that the island government, and in particular the Department of Education (DE), get bus and other vehicle drivers back on the road as more than 4,000 direct jobs stand to be lost.
Rosado Rolón said the Federation, the Bus Owners Association and other unions organized the protest as school bus drivers have yet to return to work and fear that the public school transportation system shutdown is affecting the future of some 400 local enterprises. The union leader said losses have been estimated at up to $100 million, and that more than 7,000 indirect jobs are also on the line.
“At this moment, the country has the resources and the system to help us get back to work. Not only will this help us, it will help the dairy industry, ranchers and farmers who sell their products to the DE,” Rosado Rolón said. “Those lines are being affected by the small number of lunches that the [Education] system is serving, which not only affects them, but also us because we can be the engine that encourages the economies of all those sectors, including those that sell diesel, tires, and [car] parts, and that has stopped.”
Since July, school bus drivers have been meeting with DE Secretary Eligio Hernández on a proposal to reactivate the department’s transportation system amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as the Federation has seen that school drivers in different counties in the mainland United States have provided free meals, teaching materials and even internet to remote communities so students can have access to internet. However, as local drivers have been unable to work again, debts keep stacking up.
“Seven months have passed by without work; transportation companies have no capital, no liquidity, without a due date to get back on the road,” Rosado Rolón said. “If we don’t pay our insurance policies, the Public Service Commission can cancel our authorizations, so that we, after seven months of not working, are obliged to keep paying our policies. We have to keep on living, we have to keep paying mortgages, commercial loans, and water, electric power, and phone bills.”
The Federation president raised concerns that if the DE does not do anything about the public school transport system amid the public health emergency, it will affect students’ access to education and lead many families into poverty.
“When this is all over, children need to get back to their schools,” Rosado Rolón said. “If we don’t do something to save this industry, sadly, what we’re about to witness is children walking along the edge of the streets like we saw 50 to 60 years ago.”
Later in the day, school drivers had the opportunity to meet with Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz, who committed himself to pushing for a meeting with Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced, Health Secretary Lorenzo González Feliciano and Hernández to address the issues posed by the pandemic.