Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today

On Monday, around 20 bus drivers in Greenville Public School District went on strike to protest reduced hours, low pay and what they say is poor treatment by the district.

The move left school children standing on corners with no transportation Monday and Tuesday morning, and the district’s board of trustees and superintendent scrambled to fix the issue at a board meeting Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning, the bus drivers were back at work after their concerns were addressed.

The Greenville bus drivers took the rare measure despite the existence of state laws that explicitly prohibit public employees from striking, which comes with threats of jail time and fines. And State Auditor Shad White, citing those state laws, recently investigated and punished a University of Mississippi professor for a work stoppage.

Bus drivers in the Greenville district work either 5, 6 or 7-hour routes. But at the beginning of the current school year, all drivers were cut down to 5-hour routes as a result of the school district’s virtual-only instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Superintendent Debra Dace said they were also offered a voluntary furlough so they could collect unemployment but keep their jobs, though none opted to take it.

Yolanda Lewis, a 19-year veteran bus driver with the district, said she and others met with Dace on the issue in November, but were given no relief. They asked to meet with the school board, but Dace told them the school board “didn’t want to meet with them.”

Then, last month, the board voted to reduce the number of days of work for bus drivers and custodial employees by from 187 to 182 days in the 2021-2022 school year. Dace said she made the recommendation for the reduction of days to the board because she and the director of transportation determined there were “idle days” when students weren’t in school and didn’t need to be transported.

Drivers received the letter informing them of the cut on Friday, and, as one school board member described it, it was “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” The letter also stated drivers would only be paid for days worked, which raised fears about the loss of paid holidays.

Following the bus drivers’ strike, however, the board on Tuesday reversed that decision.

Edwin Young, who has driven for the district for two years, told board members on Tuesday that he made $16,000 last year.

“We’re not making anything … We are certified drivers, we got CDLs and we’re living at the poverty level,” he said, noting the additional lack of hazard pay amid the pandemic.

And there are other issues in addition to the low pay, he and other drivers said. He still hasn’t been paid for hours he worked in October of last year despite repeatedly requesting the payment from the district.

Lewis said she was exposed to COVID-19 earlier this month by a student on her bus. She had to quarantine for 10 days with no pay, and when she went to human resources, they said she wouldn’t receive pay, she said.

She was already living on a smaller paycheck after having her hours reduced from 7 to 5. She had to give up her dental, vision and other supplemental insurance after she was no longer able to afford it working the 5-hour route.

After the strike, however, she received a call Wednesday letting her know she would receive pay for those days.

The district did not immediately respond to questions about these allegations. Dace is set to meet with the drivers on Friday.

Mississippi law prohibits public employees from striking. The law defines a strike as “a concerted failure to report for duty, a willful absence from one’s position, the stoppage of work, a deliberate slowing down of work, or the withholding, in whole or in part, of the full, faithful and proper performance of the duties of employment, for the purpose of inducing, influencing or coercing a change in the conditions, compensation, rights, privileges or obligations of public employment.”

READ MORE: Background of Mississippi’s strict law that forbids educators from striking.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.