Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Police: Driver in bus crash lacked proper license

The driver who operated the private bus that crashed on an I-95 exit ramp Monday did not have the proper license to operate a vehicle that uses air brakes, Philadelphia police said Tuesday.

Sixteen of the 22 people on the bus, which was returning workers from their temporary jobs at J&J Snack Foods Inc. in Bellmawr, Camden County, were hospitalized, with one remaining in critical condition with head injuries, said Officer Mark Menke of the Accident Investigation Division.

The bus is owned by Del Val Staffing L.L.C., one of several staffing companies that provides temporary help to J&J, the Pennsauken-based manufacturer of pretzels, funnel-cake mix, churros, cookies, Icees, and Daddy Ray's fruit bars.

The riders, whom Menke described as "just regular people who do day work and get paid at minimum wage or something like that," had been working at the company's Bellmawr plant and were to be dropped off in Kensington.

Menke said it was not an immigration issue.

The accident was still under investigation, he said, but it appears that a brake malfunction caused the crash. The bus had air brakes, which operate with a compressor that builds up air. The compressor malfunctioned, Menke said, and the driver apparently drove from New Jersey to Kensington with no air built up for braking.

No one from Del Val, on Torresdale Avenue in Northeast Philadelphia, returned any of a number of phone calls seeking comment.

Gerald B. Shreiber, chief executive of J&J, described the news of the crash as a "surprise, and it was a negative surprise."

Shreiber said employment varied at all J&J's factories depending on the season and product demand. For example, he said, a plant near Scranton that manufactures frozen snacks doubles in employment in May, June, and July.

At Bellmawr, he said, employment also fluctuates, but was at about 260 recently, with 20 or so being temporary workers.

The plant, which makes pretzels, funnel cakes, churros, cookies, and funnel fries, also serves as a distribution center for Icees and frozen beverages, he said. The factory added two production lines in December, Shreiber said.

"I'm not sure what [the temporary workers] were working on or where they were assigned," Shreiber said. "I hope that anybody that got injured recovered."

"We have a high regard for training," he said. "Unfortunately, we don't train the bus drivers."

Monday's accident is one reason why staffing companies, which used to routinely provide transportation for temporary workers to job sites, now often avoid the practice.

"It was a lot more frequent years ago," said Wayne Salen, director of risk management at Labor Finders International, a staffing franchise organization based in Florida. The company's chief executive is on the board of the American Staffing Association, a trade group.

"Most staffing firms have made a concerted effort to get away from the van and the school bus," he said, instead relying on managers of the temporary agencies to make carpooling connections among the workers.

The problem, he said, is a question of liability. Even though temporary workers are the employees of the temporary agency, the client may have some liability as a co-employer.

But that relationship is legally tricky and the laws governing it vary by state.

"Most credible staffing companies have tried to shy away from the transportation issue," he said. The only reason a staffing company would do transportation is if it had no choice and it was necessary to keeping or landing the contract, he added.

"They may have some demographic difficulties that force them to go that way," he said. Those difficulties can occur, he said, when a suburban client draws workers from a city, where residents may not own cars because of the availability of public transit.

The news accounts of the bus accident came as no surprise to Barbara Rahke, director of Philaposh, a nonprofit dedicated to occupational safety and health issues.

"That's going on every day in Philadelphia," she said. While this may not be the case for Del Val, Rahke described a "whole sort of underground industry," involving van drivers in overcrowded, badly maintained vehicles transporting what she said were "throwaway workers" desperate "to feed their families."

In New Jersey, a 10-year-old worker and human-rights advocacy group, New Labor, has made transportation of workers a "really pressing" priority, said Marien Casillas Pabellon, executive director.

Del Val, a limited-liability partnership, filed its corporate paperwork in Pennsylvania on April 1, 2009, listing William Barrett of Collingswood, Camden County, as the organizer. A woman who answered the phone at the address listed on the records said it was the wrong number.

Public records show a Pennsylvania tax lien for $34,146 against the company, and an additional $20,708 filed against a sister company, Del Val Services Corp. Both liens were filed in April.

Besides Barrett, other company officials are Barry Budilov, manager; Gina Cerone, president; and Darlene Sutton, manager, according to public records.

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