$35M contract with Providence gives First Student cover for bus strike

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence officials tried – and failed – to require the city’s school bus transportation provider to continue driving students to school in the event of a labor strike like the one members of the Teamsters union launched Thursday morning, Eyewitness News has learned.

In a request for proposals for transportation services issued in 2015, the city included a requirement that any “labor disruptions, including but not limited to lockouts, strikes, work stoppages, ‘work to rule’ events, etc.,” the contractor “is still responsible for providing transportation” to Providence students.

The city asked all bidders to include a plan “describing how service will be provided should a job action occur during the term of the contract.”

But First Student, Inc., the private vendor that ultimately won the $35-million contract with the city, successfully negotiated what is known as a “force majeure” provision that excuses the company from its transportation obligations during labor disputes, according to an Eyewitness News review of the terms of the deal.

“In the event Contractor is unable to provide the transportation services as specified in this agreement because of any act of God, civil disturbance, fire, riot, war, terrorism, picketing, strike, labor dispute, labor shortages, governmental action or any other condition or cause beyond Contractor’s control, District shall excuse Contractor from performance under this Agreement,” section 10.1 of First Student’s contract with the city states.

Emily Crowell, a spokesperson for the Elorza administration, confirmed “the provision was removed during negotiations in 2015,” but declined to provide further explanation. The company is currently seeking a two-year, $25-million contract extension with the city, but the proposal has not yet been heard by the City Council’s School Department Oversight Committee.  

First Student is locked in a dispute with Teamsters Local 251, the union that represents nearly 100 bus drivers in Providence. Union officials want the company to begin providing a pension to bus drivers, while the company maintains it is only willing to increase its contribution to the members’ 401(k) plans. After months of negotiations, the union started a strike Thursday.

The strike left nearly 10,000 Providence elementary and middle school students without a bus to ride to school, forcing them to fine alternate transportation. In one case, a 13-year-old girl who normally rides the bus, was hit by a car while riding a rented bicycle on the East Side. She was treated for minor injuries.

First Student has been Providence’s transportation vendor for more than a decade, but it is required to bid on the new contract every few years. In 2015, it was among three companies that submitted proposals, although it’s unclear if the other applicants qualified for the contract.

Records show the company quickly took exception to the city’s request that they provide transportation in the event of a strike and asked for the force majeure clause to be inserted. The city said it would include the clause, but advised First Student to “Please be clear – labor shortages, strikes, and other job actions will NOT be acceptable” as part of the provision.

It’s unclear why the final contract included labor strife as part of the force majeure.

Frank McMahon, a spokesperson for First Student, said the force majeure clause – is “pretty standard items in contracts of all types.” The provision is designed to excuse contractors from providing certain services if circumstances outside of their control arise.

McMahon initially said the company would be open to discussing modifying the terms of the contract, but he later clarified that the contact extension First Student is seeking has already been approved by the Providence School Board. It is now before the City Council.

Councilman Sam Zurier, who chairs the School Department Oversight Committee, said Thursday it’s possible the city will seek to renegotiate the contract so that First Student is required to provide transportation in the case of a strike, but he acknowledged there are several options to consider.

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Dan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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