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School Bus Drivers Parked at 65?

Force retirement, say some districts, despite new law.

By Tom Sandborn 17 Jun 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Tyee contributing editor Tom Sandborn focuses on labour and health policy issues. He can be reached here.

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Debating experience and safety.

A provincial law put into effect this year says people aged 65 can't be forced to retire, but some B.C. school boards want that protection removed from school bus drivers.

Those boards want an exemption from the law, arguing safety concerns for students. At least three districts have taken steps to purge their employment rolls of over-age drivers.

Meanwhile, Coast Mountain Bus Company, the Translink subsidiary that provides transit services in the Lower Mainland and employs over 3000 bus drivers, is enthusiastically complying with the new law, and already has a small cohort of over-65 drivers in its fleet, with eight full-sized buses now being driven by the older drivers, and 17 of the company's van-sized smaller buses.

"There is no real reason for us to discriminate against older drivers," say Sandra Hentzen, Coast Mountain's vice president for human resources. "Nothing special happens at age 65 to make you a worse driver. If we forced drivers to resign, we'd be violating the human rights code."

An Alberta precedent?

But the school boards that have decided to block over-65 drivers from their fleets are relying on a 1999 ruling by an Alberta human rights panel for their precedent in believing that the new anti-discrimination law should not apply to bus drivers.

The panel, relying on research and evidence provided by two expert witnesses, determined that driving ability does diminish with age, that no reliable tests exist that would allow an employer to sort out competent and incompetent older drivers and that, because of these two findings and the importance of protecting student safety, an employer was justified in requiring age-based retirement for school bus drivers despite statutory prohibition of age discrimination.

Dr. Rick Clapton, a traffic safety and driver behavior expert who formerly taught at the University of B.C. Okanagan, told The Tyee that research does support the notion that driving skills deteriorate with age. However, he noted, most older school bus drivers are professionals who have driven and continue to drive extensively. Skills that are practiced regularly, he said, do not deteriorate as rapidly as others.

According to Deborah Stewart, who speaks for the B.C. Public School Employers Association, there are 60 public school districts in B.C. When she spoke to The Tyee on June 10, she was aware of one district, District 23 in Central Okanagan, where the board had decided to insist on retirement at 65 for its directly employed bus drivers.

However, according to Larry Paul, District 23 secretary treasurer, the district plans on offering a transition program to its driver employees as they reach 65 if they want to continue work. Drivers will be taken off the road at 65, he told The Tyee, but will be offered the opportunity for other work within the system.

Reassigned in Coquitlam

The Public School Employers' Association has circulated to its membership a discussion paper about bus drivers and mandatory retirement that reviews the new law, the Alberta human rights ruling and the several options available to school districts, including imposing mandatory retirement and, alternatively, establishing a testing regime for drivers of all ages to insure driver competence across the fleet.

At School Districts 41 and 43 in Burnaby and Coquitlam, where bus service is provided on an outsourced basis through a contract with Cardinal Transportation, a new agreement between the districts and the bus company stipulates that drivers over 65 must not drive on routes serving schools in the two communities.

"Nobody is losing their job," insists Dex Hallwood, director of purchasing for the Coquitlam School Board. "We have to put the safety of students first. That's the most important thing."

Hallwood said that Cardinal drivers over 65 were being assigned to different duties, not let go, when they were removed from school bus duty in his district and in Burnaby, which is covered by the same contract as Coquitlam. Calls to Cardinal to verify what happens to drivers removed from bus routes in the two districts were not returned by the time this story was filed.

Hallwood cited the 1999 Ensign decision in Alberta to bolster his view that being below the age of 65 should qualify as a "Bona Fide Occupational Requirement" under human rights legislation, thus permitting his board to block anyone over that age from driving a school bus.

'My blood began to boil'

Dennis Jaeger drives for Cardinal on Coquitlam school bus routes, and he has made fighting the new age requirements into a personal crusade. He has already fired off a letter of protest to the Coquitlam school superintendent, Lorcan O'Mellin, spoken at an open school board meeting in May and arranged to meet with district purchasing director Hallwood on June 19.

Jaeger told The Tyee he has spoken with B.C.'s Human Rights Tribunal and may co-operate with other Cardinal drivers to file a human rights complaint. Still in his early 60s himself, Jaeger says "my blood began to boil" when he learned that older fellow workers were being re-assigned to other work sites and taken off school board work in Coquitlam and Burnaby.

Greyhound takes keys at 65

"I fought in a war to protect democracy," says Jaeger, who says he was a U.S. Army Ranger and prisoner of war in Vietnam. "All my life I've tried to help people, and this is just another example. I will not allow people to be suppressed"

Jaeger says that it is "nonsense" for Cardinal to refuse to let drivers operate school buses in Burnaby and Coquitlam and then transfer them to do the same work in Vancouver and Surrey. He says his June 19 meeting with Coquitlam district official Hallwood represents an opportunity for the district to correct a policy he says is discriminatory. "Otherwise we may have to take legal steps."

Greyhound Canada, which is governed by federal legislation and employs around 1,000 drivers across the country, continues to require retirement at 65.

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