There is a new budget proposal pending in the legislature to cut health insurance benefits for school bus drivers in Georgia. I know that state budgets are awfully hard, and that the Governor and his team mean well. No matter what Gov. Deal’s political critics may have said in the campaign, I know the man and know he is a good guy.
The rationale for cutting health insurance for 11,500 school bus drivers and cafeteria workers are part-time employees who work less than 30 hours a week, while other part-time state could not get health insurance benefits. The State Health Benefit Plan currently covers more than 630,000 state employees, teachers, other school personnel, retirees and dependents. The benefits cut could save the state more than $100 million per year. According to the Department of Community Health, the coverage for “non-certificated’’ school workers ran a deficit of $135 million in fiscal 2014, and this cut would cover most of that deficit.
Key legislators have pushed back against this proposal on the ground that these employees are an “essential part of the education delivery system.”
Aside from the issues of budget balancing and equity for other part-time employees, I am concerned about the potential unintended consequences for school bus safety.
School bus drivers work a few hours in the early morning and a few hours in the afternoon. It is difficult to combine that with a second part-time job. While many school bus drivers make as little as $8,000 per year, they drive a bus primarily for the health insurance benefits. According to State Rep. Bill Werkheiser (R-Glennville), “I predict if they pass it, 80 to 90 percent of the drivers in rural Georgia won’t drive.”
So what would happen if these poorly paid bus drivers quit due to loss of the health insurance that is their primary economic justification for driving a bus rather than taking some other minimum wage job? Who would drive school buses to transport Georgia’s children to their schools? What would be the consequences for safety?
Others who are qualified and experienced to drive large vehicles such as school buses might include truck drivers. But very few of them will give up a higher income to drive a bus. Years ago, school systems hired high school students to drive school buses. Hiring inexperienced 16 to 18 year old teenagers to drive school buses was such a great idea that the practice was terminated a long time ago.
In 2010, a trainee bus driver lost control of a bus on a rural road in Carroll County. A student was ejected and killed. In 2013, a collision of two school buses in Newton County resulted in 43 people being transported to a hospital. This month in North Dakota, 2 died and 11 were injured in a crash involving a school bus at a railroad crossing. Today in Texas, 22 kids were on a school bus that crashed at Fort Worth.
We have also seen a number of cases of children injured or killed during loading and unloading of school buses. Even an experienced dump truck or log truck driver would not be experienced in supervising a bus load of children and their boarding and debarking from a bus.
If in a few months we find 2,000 Georgia school buses are driven by inexperienced trainee bus drivers, transporting perhaps 80,000 children to school and back, safety will be affected and bad things will happen.
Politics and public budgets present awfully hard choices. And choices have consequences.
Ken Shigley is an Atlanta-based, board-certified trial attorney focused on large truck and bus cases. He is a former president of the State Bar of Georgia and currently chair-elect of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway and Premises Liability Section.