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Pennsylvania school bus driver bill in doubt

A state House bill that would deny unemployment compensation to school bus drivers during the summer appears to be dead.

House Bill 128 was introduced by state Rep. Dan Moul, an Adams County Republican, in October. Among its six cosponsors is an Alle-Kiski Valley legislator, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry.

The reason why Moul is no longer backing the bill is unclear, as Moul did not return a call on Friday from the Valley News Dispatch. However, a member of his office staff confirmed that he has pulled his support.

Metcalfe also did not return a call.

The bill was referred to the House Labor and Industry Committee chaired by York County Republican state Rep. Ron Miller, who confirmed that Moul removed his name from the bill. He said he doesn't know what Moul's reasons are for introducing the bill or pulling his sponsorship.

"It's not even on my radar originally," Miller said. "So, if the prime sponsor isn't even asking for the bill to move, it's just going to sit there."

Most school bus drivers work for transportation contractors hired by school districts.

They work about four or five hours a day while school is in session, about nine months out of the year.

The drivers are eligible to file for unemployment compensation usually during the summer.

The bill, a proposed amendment to the Unemployment Compensation Law, sought to prevent school bus drivers from collecting unemployment compensation that many use to supplement their part-time income.

Mike Kocon of Tarentum and John Howard of Fawn are drivers who transport students in the Highlands School District for Butler County-based William Roenigk Inc. With 1,000 employees, Roenigk is probably the biggest bus contractor in the Valley and one of the biggest in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

Kocon and Howard were not aware of the bill until a reporter asked them about it on Thursday.

"If anybody else gets laid off, they get unemployment, right?" Howard said. "To me, that's discriminatory."

Howard and Kocon noted that the drivers pay the unemployment tax like everyone else.

"We still depend on this money," Howard said. "If they do this, there's going to be a lot of people who stop driving."

"If they do this, I'm out," Kocon said.

That's the reaction expected by William Roenigk, the bus company owner.

"What it's going to do is just keep more people from driving school buses," Roenigk said.

He predicted that the bill would fail if it ever came to a vote.

He questioned why somebody who works in private industry, which school bus drivers do unless a district has its own bus fleet, would be denied unemployment compensation.

Roenigk said it is not the drivers' choice to shut down the schools for three months. They're no different than other seasonal employees, such as people who work in construction.

"It's a wrong-headed thought, and it's one that will not save any district one dime," Roenigk said. It's the bus contractors, not the school districts, that pay into the drivers' unemployment compensation. "It's just going to make the district's transportation situation more difficult."

Miller said that the state owes the federal government $3.5 billion for unemployment compensation and is wrestling with how to do that. So the issue of unemployment for seasonal employees in general will be present, Miller said, although nobody has proposed a law to address it.

As for the possibility of HB128's other sponsors stepping up to push action on it, Miller was not optimistic.

"This is one that somebody would really have to push hard for me to take a look at it," Miller said. "I don't think any others would take it up but if they do, then we would take it up. Otherwise, I would say it is pretty much dead."

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