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‘Underpaid, understaffed, unsafe’: Las Cruces school bus drivers threatening to strike

About 50 school bus drivers demonstrate, demanding better pay and safer work conditions.
About 50 school bus drivers demonstrate, demanding better pay and safer work conditions.

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico -- Dozens of school bus drivers in Las Cruces are threatening to go on strike next week if their demands for better pay and safer driving conditions are not met.

"Right now, we're at an all-time crisis of having far too many drivers leave for better jobs for better pay for better benefits," said Marcos Torres, the president of the Las Cruces Transportation Federation.

Demands for better pay

Starting pay for a school bus driver is $10.40/hour with no benefits, according to Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers of New Mexico. Starting pay for attendants who handle students in wheelchairs starts at $10.10 with no benefits.

"The pay is one of the lowest in the state," Ly told ABC-7. "They don't even have benefits, so it's a double whammy."

"The parties are still negotiating those areas," said Dale Bohn of STS of New Mexico.

Because of the low pay and no benefits, Torres said schoolchildren are driven by a "revolving door" of drivers, leading to high turnover and inadequate staffing.

"Everyone drives," said Torres. The staff drives. Even the general manager drives. It's never been as bad as it this year."

Unbearably hot temperatures

In the state of New Mexico, school buses are not required to have air conditioning.

"If they're looking at air conditioning, I mean, that's not our option to do that," Bohn told ABC-7. "It's dictated by the state."​

Drivers say the temperature inside a bus can be ten degrees hotter than the outside temperature, especially on a triple digit day.

"When we put kids unnecessarily at risk by driving a vehicle that's way too hot and putting ourselves in a position where we may suffer from heat stroke in the summer, we're putting kids at risk," Torres said.

State Sen. Jeff Steinborn (D-Las Cruces) has made a push in three separate sessions of the New Mexico Legislature to require air conditioning in new school buses.

"We have the money," Steinborn said. "(Legislators) are just not being sympathetic to the plight of our drivers and our kids."

His most recent push (Senate Bill 321) died on the floor of the New Mexico Senate. He plans to introduce it again.

"It's very critical that in this coming budget, that we make this change and provide Las Cruces Public Schools the money," Steinborn said.

Unsafe driving conditions

Torres told ABC-7 that because STS of New Mexico is understaffed, mechanics are often forced to drive buses.

"We have excellent mechanics," Torres said. "But they can't do their job if they're not here to do their work. If they're out driving more hours than they are working on buses. It's a revolving door."

According to STS of New Mexico, every bus is inspected by the state once a year.

 "STS of New Mexico has a safety standard," Bohn said. "We do not operate any buses that are not safe."​

When asked if he was prepared for a potential walkout, Bohn told ABC-7: "We've never had anything like this before, so we think we're prepared for it."​

Kate Bieri

Kate Bieri is ABC-7’s New Mexico Mobile Newsroom reporter and co-anchors ABC-7’s weekend evening newscasts.


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