Dattco Drivers At Odds

STALLED+AT+THE+CROSSROADS%3A+Strike+talks+parked+in+neutral+as+all+parties+seek+an+agreement.+

Ben Reiser

STALLED AT THE CROSSROADS: Strike talks parked in neutral as all parties seek an agreement.

Aaron Hendel and Ellie Gavin

It isn’t over yet.

While the bus strike announced Sunday may have been averted (at least as of Oct. 2), sources say the drivers and the bus company, Dattco, are far from an agreement.

While both sides say they remain generally optimistic that they will reach an agreement, some drivers say they are deeply dissatisfied. Some of the issues under mediation are typical, like wages; others, equally as vital, are more surprising.

According to several in-town drivers, who wished to be anonymous, their pay is much lower than that of drivers in neighboring towns such as New Canaan and Wilton. According to one driver, for first-year employees in Westport, the hourly wage starts around $16, whereas drivers just a few miles away often earn between $23 to $26 for the same job.

However, Dattco officials said, Dattco is not the only company that offers bus services for public schools in Fairfield County, and numbers can vary depending on the terms of the specific agreements between the town and the company.

The drivers would strike against Dattco, not Westport schools. In 2010, Westport’s Board of Education entered into a five-year contract with Dattco; the cost of the contract was $16,759,991.71, including $225,000 in property taxes paid by Dattco over the five years.

Dattco Chief Operating Officer Cliff Gibson said that he doesn’t believe the reported $7 to $10 range is accurate. He did not say what the range is but added that he believes Dattco’s wages are not the highest, nor the lowest. He called them “competitive.”

Gibson and the anonymous driver both added that wages for drivers can be affected by a number of factors, particularly a worker’s tenure at the company.

According to the anonymous driver, net pay is also much higher in other towns, and a major factor is the number of hours worked. In other towns, he said, bus drivers amass more hours because they get to drive charter trips for events like field trips and athletic games.

According to the driver, the proposed contract actually cut hours for many employees, even those who have been loyal for many years. Ultimately, the driver said, the combination of the low pay and reduced hours would mean a significant decline in overall income.

Gibson, on the other hand, said that Dattco has the “responsibility” to use all available Dattco drivers in Westport for the charters, adding that in the fall and spring in particular, it is very common for towns, not just Westport, to be supplied with buses or drivers from elsewhere in order to accommodate all student transportation needs.

According to some of the drivers, in addition to the wage inequalities that have been in place for years, new provisions in the renegotiations for the new contracts will remove holiday pay for the drivers.

“It’s a slap in the face,” a driver said.

A few drivers also say that the vehicles themselves need to be replaced. According to one, the buses are old, hot, and even “smelly,” with the heating and air conditioning systems often malfunctioning. The driver also said that in other towns, these equipment problems aren’t as prevalent; he finds their buses are in better condition.

Gibson said that Dattco subjects its vehicles to inspections annually, and he is proud to say that Dattco buses comply with age limits agreed to by Westport and the company. He said the buses pass what he called “strict” inspections.

As of now, negotiations continue. The bus drivers, due to involvement of a federal agency, agreed to continue working while negotiations proceed. The drivers are working under the terms of their former agreement. It seems that while a strike has temporarily been averted, one in the future may still be a possibility.It is not clear how long it will take for them to come to an agreement.

According to athletic director Marty Lisevick, a contract disagreement between drivers and the bus company has occurred before. The last time, he said, it took about two months to come to an agreement.