Bus drivers with Durham School Services, which has a contract with Baltimore, "speak-out" about conditions which include not being paid for work and unsafe conditions. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)

Bus drivers and aides employed by a Baltimore schools contractor say that unsafe conditions such as fires and mold spores are endangering lives and unfair wages are threatening their livelihoods.

The grievances were aired Thursday at a rally of employees of Durham School Services, a national company that transports children in more than 350 school districts. Since 2002, the city has contracted with Durham, which earned an estimated $15.5 million over the last three school years. The company's buses transport about 928 students.

The company is facing a collective-action lawsuit, representing 85 drivers and aides who work for the Rosedale-based affiliate of the company.

The federal suit, filed in U.S. District Court on March 12, says the company has not paid workers for the hours they earned carrying out responsibilities required for transporting students, such as pre- and post-trip inspections, fueling and cleaning buses. The suit also says the company didn't pay the workers overtime they earned or pay it on a timely basis.

"We believe that the workers are performing a variety of tasks that are integral to bus driving that they're not being paid for," said Brooke Lierman, who is representing the workers in the federal suit. "They're performing work for free."

In a statement, Durham officials said: "Our company strives to ensure employees are correctly paid for the work they perform," but declined to comment on the lawsuit because it is pending litigation.

Stephanie Urosa, a bus attendant who is a complainant in the lawsuit, said there is mold in her bus that affects the special-needs students, some of whom have tracheotomies. She's expected to clean the bus herself, she said, but would not be paid for it.

"No one should be breathing in mold spores," said Urosa, who added that she had her left lung removed as a result of cancer. "And I know my bus is not the only bus with mold on it. These buses need to be safer than what they are to carry our precious cargo."

Renee Davis, whose 7-year-old son, Jaylin Jones, rides Urosa's bus, showed up to support the bus drivers and aides. Her son has learning disabilities and has chronic lung disease, and she said Urosa has been a trustworthy aide.

"I worry about both of them," Davis said. "It doesn't matter if she gets sick, or he gets sick, my whole day is messed up. And if she doesn't have what she needs, my son won't."

Durham said in the statement that it "takes the safety of our passengers and employees very seriously."

"In contrast to the union's anecdotes shared today," the statement said, "the facts are that school buses are the safest way for students to get to school and Durham is a leader in safe transportation."

City school officials said that contractors are responsible for the maintenance and cleaning of their buses and that the district conducts inspections in the spring, summer and fall. All of the district's school buses were inspected this spring.

Durham buses were rated in the good category with minimal defects, and spot checks are performed randomly at schools, officials said. They added that contractors are required to report any safety-related issues to the district.

But workers said the safety risks reported to Durham often go unaddressed.

For example, on May 10, a Durham bus was on fire as it pulled up to a school, Teamsters Local 570 officials said, with the driver and aide barely escaping. There were no students on the bus. The union said it was the second school bus to catch on fire in less than three years.

Durham and school officials declined to comment on the reports of fires.

The group of workers are planning to formally join the Teamsters, with a vote scheduled May 31.

Sean Cedenio, secretary and treasurer of Local 570, said that the measure is long overdue. "We hear all kinds of issues … but they do not have a voice on the job," Cedenio said. "The company ignores their pain, their plight."

Durham officials said: "We have multiple reporting channels in place for employees to share concerns whether related to safety, services, working conditions or payroll."

"There have been shortages in everyone's paycheck … and the minutes, eventually they add up," said bus driver Mildred Israel.

Flipping through his detailed log, Martin Fox said his April paycheck was 7.25 hours short. The bus driver of roughly six years said that he's lucky because not all of his co-workers are as organized.

"I just want what I earned," said Fox, who transports special-needs students. "At $16.40 [an hour], that's not chump change to me. And I keep records. Some of the others are being cheated on a regular basis."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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An earlier version of this article gave the incorrect date for a fire on a bus. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.