Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Come on. We can afford insurance for bus drivers, cafeteria workers

It may not seem like a big issue, but it is for those involved. And even for those not directly involved, it ought to raise questions about public priorities and basic values.

In an effort to save money and cut spending, Gov. Nathan Deal has proposed to end health-insurance coverage for 11,500 school bus drivers and cafeteria workers around the state. He offers a reasonable rationale, pointing out that bus drivers and cafeteria workers are only part-time employees, and most other part-time state employees are not eligible for coverage. It is, he says, a matter of fairness and of treating people equally.

To my knowledge, though, other part-time state employees aren't demanding that bus drivers and cafeteria workers be stripped of their coverage. I've heard no such outcry; I've seen nobody picketing the governor's office demanding such a change. "Fairness" is not the reason for Deal's decision. Fairness is the excuse. The $103 million in annual cost is the reason.

And as Jim Salzer of the AJC points out today, school employees aren't the only part-time state employees who get health insurance. State legislators also get that benefit for themselves and their families, yet there is no talk of "fairness" demanding that legislators be stripped of that benefit, that we have to treat people "equally".


Well, the implication is that some people -- the more important people -- are deserving of health insurance, while those less important are not. Legislators are professionals who go to work in a suit and tie or other business attire. Bus drivers and cafeteria workers do not. As Orwell would put it, some are more equal than others.

In more practical terms, I have no doubt whatsoever that hiring and retaining good bus drivers, for example, would become significantly more difficult without the promise of health-care coverage. That's why many people find it attractive in the first place.

Think about the job: A bus driver is often the first interaction of the day between a family and a local school district, and they're the last interaction as well. It's not a stress-free assignment, as your own childhood memories will probably confirm. The driver works a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the afternoon, plus occasional field trips and other outings, but the commitment at both ends of the day makes it impossible to hold a full-time job that might offer insurance.

For a lot of people, both in rural parts of the state and here in metro Atlanta, a bus-driving job or cafeteria job offers a way to cobble together a living. You might make $20,000 to $30,000 a year, but health insurance is the glue that makes it possible.

(Disclosure: My father drove a school bus for years in north Georgia, although as a retired service member, he did not need to do so for the health insurance. For him, it was a secondary source of income, and he just liked the kids. But the military example is also useful here. As with bus driving, the job doesn't pay all that great, but the retirement and health insurance that comes with it make it more attractive).

Can we afford to keep offering that benefit? Of course we can, we've done so for decades, back when we thought such things important.  It's just a question of whether it's still important to us. It's a question of where we draw the line between ruthless efficiency and treating people with respect.

We live in a time and place in which it's OK to spend hundreds of millions of public dollars building sports stadiums and pedestrian bridges for billionaire owners and millionaire players, plus tens of millions more to subsidize private school for the more affluent. Meanwhile, health insurance for bus drivers and cafeteria workers is considered an extravagance. If you're fine with that, OK.

I'm not.



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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.