Bengal Bus airport shuttle drivers demand fair wage conversation

bengal driver strike
Bengal Bus drivers Kiarra Young (senior), Evan Legrand (senior), Ellie Dunn (senior) and Malena Lacque (junior) at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. March 24, 2023. Fiona Rayne/The Occidental

According to Ellie Dunn (senior), the student service manager for the Associated Students of Occidental College’s (ASOC) Bengal Bus Shuttle Service, airport shuttle drivers met March 22 with Occidental’s chief Human Resources (HR) officer, Mary Maher, to discuss their wages. Dunn said that the majority of drivers stopped taking airport shuttle shifts after the shuttle drivers’ wage was cut from $24.08 per hour to LA’s minimum wage, $16.04 per hour, in Fall 2022. Dunn has been working as a Bengal Bus and airport shuttle driver since the Fall of 2021 and has been the manager since Fall 2022.

According to Occidental’s website, Bengal Bus drivers provide on-call transportation within a seven-mile radius of campus from 6:00 p.m. — 10:00 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays. Airport shuttles provide transportation to both Los Angeles International Airport and Hollywood Burbank Airport.

Dunn said that in previous semesters, Bengal Bus drivers who also provided airport shuttle drives used to file a separate payroll timesheet for driving to the airports at $24.08 per hour. This Fall, however, they were only given the option to file airport shuttle hours as Bengal Bus drivers with the pay rate of $16.04 an hour.

“Because of that they were saying, ‘Oh, well a Bengal Bus driver is a Bengal Bus driver, so no matter what they’re doing they’re going to be getting the same wage,’” Dunn said.

bengal driver strike
Bengal Bus driver Ellie Dunn (senior) at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. March 24, 2023. Fiona Rayne/The Occidental

Dunn said that driving to the airport is very different from regular Bengal Bus shifts.

“You’re transferring on three different highways, and the shifts can be up to three hours of sustained focus on the road,” Dunn said.

Dunn said that drivers who had already provided transportation for the 2022 Fall Break were under the impression they would be compensated at $24.08, but they were paid LA minimum wage instead. Dunn said it was not until she was filling out her timesheet that she realized this change.

“That was a bummer, obviously, because it was retroactive,” Dunn said.

Marcus Rodriguez, assistant dean of students and director of Student Leadership, Involvement, and Community Engagement (SLICE), said via email that during the review and clarification process with Student Employment, Dunn was provided with regular updates.

“Communication has been fluid throughout this process,” Rodriguez said via email.

Between the 2022 Fall Break and Thanksgiving break, Dunn said she informed the Payroll Office and the SLICE office that very few or none of the drivers would be willing to transport students to the airport for $16.04 per hour. According to Dunn, she told drivers that she did not expect them to drive for the new wage, but if they still wanted to, they absolutely should. Dunn said that out of six airport shuttle drivers, none of them drove Thanksgiving break shuttle shifts, two drove winter break shifts and one drove spring break shifts.

bengal driver strike
Bengal Bus driver Malena Lacque (junior) at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. March 24, 2023. Fiona Rayne/The Occidental

Maher, Occidental’s chief HR officer, said she looks at market surveys of higher education institutions to determine equitable wages. She said that the shuttle drivers’ previous wage of $24.08 was determined by multiplying the Bengal Bus drivers wage — LA’s minimum wage — by 150 percent, and that this formula has inherent problems.

“It’s based on 1.5 times what the Bengal Bus drivers make,” Maher said. “That’s not really an accepted approach to determining a wage.”

The airport shuttle drivers sent Maher a letter March 7, five days before spring break, asking to restore the previous wage of $24.08, saying that they would bring wider attention to their grievances if the wages were not restored. Maher said this was the first she had heard of their concerns, and that she was also unaware of the Lyft vouchers used for Thanksgiving break, which were purchased to make up for the lack of shuttle drivers.

Maher said that Occidental analyzes wages at other Southern California colleges with operating budgets in the range of $40-500 million, to determine a fair market for wages. She said that after receiving the letter, she looked at what the market pays employees under the job title of “motor vehicle operators.” The new rate she came up with in response to the shuttle driver’s work stoppage was $20 per hour.

“We tend to target the 50th percentile of the market,” Maher said. “The 50th percentile for motor vehicle operators is $19.89, we rounded up to $20 an hour.”

Rodriguez said via email everyone involved agreed that driving regular routes and driving airport shuttles are different responsibilities.

“The differentiation between the roles/responsibilities was clarified over the course of the past few months with the assistance of Student Employment,” he said via email.

Dunn said that she and other airport shuttle drivers have yet to settle for the new proposed wage of $20 per hour.

“To us, that seemed really arbitrary,” Dunn said.

One airport shuttle driver, who wished to stay anonymous*, expressed their frustration at the wage cut.

“It’s not a small service that this school offers, and they’re sort of treating it like it is. At least they’re treating us like we’re not valued employees,” the driver said. “This is a clearly ridiculous problem that has such an easy fix … ‘We’ll pay you $16, we’ll pay you $20’ — just pay us what you’ve been paying us.”

According to Rodriguez, to make up for the lack of shuttles, about a hundred Lyft vouchers for winter and spring breaks were purchased which came out of the Bengal Bus operating costs. Rodriguez said that the decision to purchase the vouchers was made in conjunction with Dunn.

“This was introduced as an option while we waited on the outcome of the Airport Shuttle Drivers position review and market survey,” Rodriguez said via email.

bengal driver strike
Bengal Bus driver Kiarra Young (senior) at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. March 24, 2023. Fiona Rayne/The Occidental

Dunn said that the Bengal Bus airport shuttles usually transport around 60 to 70 students.

“The good thing with the Lyft vouchers is that more people got transportation than they normally would have,” Dunn said.

Dunn said via email that Rodriguez tasked her with buying the Lyft vouchers which totaled $10,380.59 for the two breaks. Dunn said she estimated the cost for running the shuttles during the 2021-22 academic year to be about $2,000. Both the Lyft vouchers and the Bengal Bus budget (through which airport shuttles are funded) come from Occidental’s ASOC Bengal Bus Student Service budget. According to ASOC’s fiscal year 2023 budget, ASOC’s yearly expenses total $844,600, of which $30,000 is allocated to the Bengal Bus and airport shuttles.

Dunn said that the drivers’ argument for higher wages will not focus on the expense of the Lyft vouchers, but on the strain, time and possible risks that come with the job of airport shuttle driver.

After their meeting with Maher March 22, Dunn said the drivers are going to create a new proposal to raise their wages and submit it to the next level of administration, Amos Himmelstein, Occidental’s vice president and chief operating officer.

“After the meeting yesterday, I don’t think the $24.08 is going to be obtainable, unfortunately,” Dunn said. “So we are at this point in time … going to aim for the original wage before minimum wage was risen, which was $22.50.”

According to Dunn, there are currently no plans for a public demonstration.

“They advised us specifically not to do that in the meeting,” Dunn said. “If we find it necessary, it’s not out of the question. But I think as of right now, our main focus is just updating that new proposal with the new information we have and getting that along to Amos.”

Dunn said she hopes Himmelstein will understand the argument that the conditions of airport shuttle drivers warrant higher wages, but it has been a long journey.

“It seems like this is going to be our last stop,” Dunn said. “I definitely still have a lot of hope, and we definitely just need to keep advocating for ourselves and fighting for what we’ve had in the past, but it’s definitely been very exhausting and discouraging at the same time.”

*The name of a student worker has been omitted from this article in accordance with our anonymous source policy. For more information on anonymity, visit our Frequently Asked Questions.

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