SUFFOLK, Va. - Bus drivers say the Suffolk Public School Board has awoken a 'sleeping giant'.
Half of Suffolk's public school bus drivers called out sick on Friday, all because of wages.
Suffolk Public Schools tells News 3 that of their 135 drivers, 68 reported to work Friday and 67 called out sick.
“We are sick and tired of everybody treating us the way they are," said bus driver Nikki Blair. "They are not hearing us, so maybe they will hear us now.”
Thursday night the school system sent out an announcement that some bus routes would be canceled because of the absences.
The canceled routes affect both morning and afternoon transportation. There are a total of 349 routes and 122 were cancelled.
Click here to see the full list of routes that are affected by the absences.
Bus drivers told News 3's Merris Badcock they repeatedly told school board members about their salary concerns during budget meetings this year, and many years prior.
Earlier this month, the board passed a budget which would give drivers a one percent to 2.4 percent increase in wages. However, many bus drivers say that is not enough, especially with increased health insurance costs on the way.
“They did not listen to us," said Vera Blackwell, a bus driver for 13 years. "It is like they turned around and told us – and I'm going to clean it up for you – to 'kiss their behinds'.”
“I feel bad," said Angelo Stone, president of the Suffolk Bus Drivers Association. "You’ve got drivers only making $12,000 a year. No one can live off that. That is poverty level.”
As a show of their unhappiness, Suffolk bus drivers have organized a 'sick out' on Friday. So far, school officials say 48 drivers have called out sick.
"Yes, I will be calling out," Blackwell said. "Point blank, and simple."
When school officials found out about the 'sick out', an emergency staff meeting was called at Kings Fork Middle School. Media was not allowed in, but News 3 talked to both sides afterwards.
“We wanted to tell them, 'We consider you an important part of the team. The kids need you every day,'” said Bethanne Bradshaw, a public information officer for Suffolk Public Schools.
Bradshaw says the school board decided to give all drivers a 2.5 percent raise (instead of the original one to 2.4 percent raise). She also noted the Superintendent will create a Bus Drivers Advisory Committee, and they are encouraging principals to meet with bus drivers before the end of the year.
However, Stone told News 3 school bus drivers need at least a three percent raise, and for health care costs to come down. After the meeting, he confirmed the 'sick out' is still on.
In the meantime, parents were notified about late buses on Friday, and were encouraged to drive their kids to school.