By BEA LEWIS
LACONIA — School bus drivers are threatening to strike amid contract disputes between Teamsters Union Local No. 633 and First Student – the company that transports students throughout the Lakes Region.
Two weeks ago, Local 633 based in Manchester, that represents the 850 workers employed in New Hampshire by First Student, issued a strikenotice. The union and bus company have locked horns over retirementfunding issues during contract negotiations.
With the prospects of area school bus drivers leaving the driver'sseat and heading to the picket line, city educators are among those developing contingency plans in the event student transportation isdisrupted.
Were a strike to occur, affected school districts would most likely head to Superior Court and file an emergency injunction request asking a judge to order that the buses keep rolling until the labor dispute is resolved. But students might still find themselves having to find their own ride to school for a day or two until court action could be
First Student Inc., headquartered in Cincinnati provides busing for students in Alton, Belmont, Canterbury, Center Harbor, Gilford, Gilmanton, Laconia, Meredith, Moultonborough and Sandwich. It also employs other workers at its bus maintenance facilities in Belmont, Tilton and Moultonborough.
The (Mancheter) Union Leader reported that First Student employees at the Belmont facility are the only ones in the state currently in negotiations because their contract expired in June. Buses, drivers, mechanics and dispatchers who work out of the Belmont facility provide transportation for schools in Alton, Gilford, Gilmanton, Laconia and for the Shaker Regional District
While the union and the busing contractor have in years past publicly announced their inability to hammer out a new contract, and strike talk has often loomed, recent court filings show the divide between them has deepened for apparent cause.
News that the two sides were at odds broke on Sept. 9, when a civil suit was filed in U.S. District Court alleging that First Student has shorted payments to a savings and investment plan for Teamsters members in New England.
The suit alleges that First Students failed to pay more than $77,000 in matching contributions to help fund 401K retirement benefits.
New England Teamsters Savings and Investment Plan is a multi-employer profit sharing plan governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). Under the terms of collective bargaining agreements with several New England-based Teamsters Union Locals, First Student became a contributing employer to the plan.
First Student is obligated to pay matching employer contributions, by certain percentages and up to certain annual maximums, and elective deferrals (pre-tax contributions) made by First Student employees.
In June, the suit claims both the plan management and First Student were aware that the busing company had failed to pay matching contributions it owed for many of its employees. First Student signed an agreement that same month, pledging to make its matching contributions on a quarterly basis, and to pay off the accrued employer matching contributions.
Following a self-audit by First Student, the company reported that it had failed to make required matching contributions totaling $27,961.84 on behalf of 110 covered employees. It also reported that it had misdirected $34,535.28 in employee elective deferrals into a First Student-sponsored plan rather than the Teamsters Plan.
The plaintiffs charge that despite repeated requests, First Student has failed and refused to make the employer matching contributions it owned through June 30, 2015; to make the employer matching contributions it owned for the period of July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016; and to reimburse the Plan for the elective deferrals erroneously diverted to the company sponsored plan.
On Oct. 24, First Student called for a 21-day cooling off period in the wake of the strike notice. As a result, no workers can strike until after that period expires in mid-November.
(CAPTION) Students board First Student buses at Inter-Lakes Elementary School in Meredith on Thursday. Teamsters Union Local 633 which represents some 850 First Student employees in the state is threatening to strike over a contract dispute. (Bea Lewis Photo/for The Laconia Daily Sun)
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