- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Part-time school bus drivers and attendants who transport the District's special-education students returned to work "still sick" yesterday after hundreds of them failed to report to work Thursday and Friday, union officials said.
A spokesman for the union representing the part-time employees denied that the absences had been a protest "sick out." Their grievances are real and numerous, but there was "no sick out," said Andrew Washington, 33, president of Local 1959 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents more than 1,200 part-time drivers and attendants who transport the District's 3,678 special-education students.
Those drivers and attendants who called in sick last week 250 on Thursday and 340 on Friday actually were sick, he said.
Most drivers and attendants were back at work yesterday, said Kennedy Khabo, deputy chief operating officer for D.C. public schools. Sick calls were "drastically lower," he added.
Many of the men and women who drive and take care of the children on the buses fell sick but returned to work yesterday still sick, Mr. Washington said.
"Trust me, if there had been a sick out, there wouldn't have been any buses rolling out," he said.
"With everything that the professional drivers and attendants have dealt with over the last two years no checks, incorrect checks and contract disputes the drivers and attendants are still dedicated. They come to work day in and day out to serve the public," Mr. Washington said.
Drivers and attendants may have felt better yesterday, but many said they were not happy about the way they have been treated by the public school system.
"We carry the most precious cargo and we can't even get a cost-of-living increase," said a bus attendant stationed at a school bus lot on New York Avenue in Northeast.
The part-time employees said their paychecks are consistently incorrect and that they have to make many rounds to try to get the errors resolved.
D.C. public school officials, according to Mr. Washington, have approached the matter by handing the drivers written excuses to present to their landlords. "They have the audacity to give letters to [the drivers and attendants] saying that it is their fault and tell employees to present the letters to their landlords," he said.
There's a deep-seated "lack of respect" for the workers, Mr. Washington said.
"Transportation has been on the bottom rung for so long. We can't keep working like this. [The school officials] use the slogan: 'Kids First,' but how about our kids?" he said.
Mr. Khabo said when school administrators heard about drivers not reporting to work, they immediately started telephoning parents.
"When we heard rumors about the 'sick out,' we started calling parents and informing schools and ensuring that the phones were manned. [In many instances] drivers doubled and tripled up on their routes those were some of the steps that we took to minimize the impact to students and their parents," Mr. Khabo said.
"Parents were supportive and many volunteered to bring their children to school on Thursday and Friday," he said. "It's that level of commitment that parents have to their children and we are very appreciative."
Mr. Khabo said public school administrators had not yet met with union leaders, although letters, e-mails and telephone calls had been placed to the AFSCME.

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