On the Job: Jamie Sonta Smith at Carterville School District #5
Jamie Sonta Smith is president of AFSCME Local 1273.
Tell us about your job as a school bus driver.
The school district has given the students and teachers the option to do full remote or do the blended learning. But our numbers on our buses most days are about the same. In the mornings we pick up all grades and in the afternoons I do junior high and high school.
We have a strict mask enforcement. We have to have the windows down and the hatch is open for ventilation, which will be an issue once it gets colder. We can have up to 50 people on the bus, including the driver and a monitor if you have one. We try but there is no way to social-distance on our buses. None. After the morning runs, we spray the buses down with disinfectant and in the afternoons they use an electrostatic cleaning device. And, of course, we have hand sanitizer and basic cleaning.
We’ve had to learn completely new routes, with new kids and new areas. Literally every day is something different: new route, new stops, new kids. It’s hard to get these down and memorize it because it’s always changing. Fridays we have reserved for other work—fixing routes, fixing seating charts, cleaning, maintenance and paperwork.
The stress levels are very high, and morale is down. Everyone is losing extra income from field trips and events and sports trips that we would normally be doing. For those of us who rely on this job for a sole source of income it’s extremely difficult. And some like me have kids at home doing e-learning. My five-year-old is in kindergarten and her school district is totally remote.
What’s your inspiration to go to work every day? What keeps you motivated?
I enjoy working with the children, getting to know them. Being part of their little community. I’ve built a lot of bonds with these kids. I’ve been with them for the last six years. I find myself becoming very invested in how they do in school, when they’re in sports, how they excel and succeed in those things. It’s very rewarding for me to see them do good.
We’re around the kids more, we can tell which kids need the extra attention or who isn’t receiving positive attention. We can see who has problems at home. It helps us pass that along to other people who might be able to help them. I’ve seen kids almost expelled, and then excelling in school. I’ve seen them get the help they need and turn around completely. That’s a good feeling.
When I see kids who have already graduated, they remember me. They say stuff like, you were my favorite bus driver. Things like that mean a lot and make it worth it.
How does your job provide a valuable public service?
We keep these kids safe when they go to school—even more now. There are a lot of kids in rural areas who don’t have access to internet and the things they need for e-learning. During the spring, we provided meal delivery to those kids out there, for free.
I knew and the other drivers knew there were kids that weren’t there but should have been. Kids we knew were in need but weren’t coming. I knew their parents were working or didn’t have a car. So we would take detours to find the kids and make sure they were getting enough meals. I just wanted to make sure that my kids were OK. When they’re on my bus, they’re my kids.
How does your union improve your work?
Being union lets me know there’s someone behind me, backing me up when things get difficult. Like now. A lot of drivers, monitors and staff members in the union were concerned about what we would do when the school shut down in March. Would we get paid, how are we going to survive financially, how is everyone going to make this? The union was there to help us push for what we need, make sure our contracts are being honored and that we’re not just being cast aside because we weren’t needed at that time.
In our current situation, our contract will expire at the end of the school year. We need to pull together to negotiate our contract so we don’t lose benefits we have, like guaranteed pay raises. There are so many issues that we could be addressing and without a union we could be completely disregarded.
I’ve worked for transportation companies who didn’t have a union. We were not treated fairly; we were treated as disposable employees. I know I will never go back.
How has your job impacted your family?
I’m having surgery and I won’t be able to work for six weeks. If I had been in a nonunion workplace I would have been on my own. It’s happened to me before and I got no pay. Now I’ve got sick days saved up and I know my family won’t suffer, we won’t face eviction or having our utilities cut off because I had to have a medically necessary procedure. The union made sure I got those days.