Schools are hustling trying to fill empty seats during a nationwide bus driver shortage that has caused short-term school closures, put mechanics in driver’s seats, and forced student schedule changes.
Deb Paulin, Alden Central School Employees Association, said when COVID-19 hit “we lost eight drivers right off the bat. They were older and they were afraid for their health.”
“We had 20 drivers retire last year out of 91 drivers,” said Charlie Jones, Bethlehem Central United Employees Association. This fall, he said, “We have 68 routes and could only fill 65. Combined routes make for tighter and more stressful schedules for drivers.”
“We have three people in training right now. We’ve had to consolidate every route covered,” said Darci Hover, president of the Chatham Central Bus Drivers Association, who reported that 20 bus drivers retired last year.
Many districts report that mechanics and fuelers — both of whom are required to have a Commercial Driver's License — have been driving buses to help fill the gaps. Some students are starting school later, waiting longer after sporting events, or riding a bus longer than usual while drivers add pick-ups and drop-offs to fill the gap.
Local unions are working with districts to host open houses for potential bus drivers, and to set up information tables.
At the statewide level, NYSUT President Andy Pallotta will testify this week before the joint state Senate Education committee to address how federal stimulus money could be spent to hire more bus drivers.
A team effort
The shortage stems from a host of issues, including an unusual work schedule with a split shift and few hours, making the job difficult to have as a career; the spread of the coronavirus; low wages; vaccination requirements in some districts; increased responsibilities before, during and after routes as a result of the pandemic; and the stress of dealing with many children.
Bethlehem’s Charlie Jones reports that two bus drivers left because they did not want to get the COVID-19 vaccine now mandated by the district. There is a possibility of losing four more drivers if they do not receive religious or medical exemptions. Jones noted the union is negotiating with the district to increase bus driver’s hourly wages to between $21 and $23, plus benefits for four hours or more per day.
Some schools are setting up job fairs for bus drivers and other School-Related Professionals, such as teacher aides or custodians, who are also in short supply in some areas.
In Chatham, an open house for bus drivers will be held in October at the Columbia County fairgrounds, and current bus drivers will be on hand to talk about the job. Hover reports that the union has been working with district administrators and the PTA for an all-out campaign to hire more drivers. They have been setting up tables at sporting events, handing out fliers and brochures on what it takes to get a CDL and what it means to be a bus driver. Material includes applications from the DMV.
“We are just banging out ideas on how to reach people,” Hover said. “It’s a real team effort.”
It costs $200 to get a permit and pay for the background check and fingerprinting, she said. Starting pay is $20-$22 an hour in Chatham, where drivers who work at least four hours a day get health insurance coverage, thanks to union negotiations.
Three new drivers started in Alden schools in the past few weeks. A bus driver for 36 years, Paulin said starting pay has been $17.50 per hour, but has increased to $19 per hour with a guarantee of two hours a day.
“You have to pay more than McDonalds and fast food places,” she said. “It’s a lot of responsibility. You need good people who are going to take it seriously.” Bus drivers have resigned because of the increased stress of the job, she noted, including schedule changes due to the shortage.
Keeping up with mandated seating charts (for contact tracing), ensuring that children keep their masks on, worrying about the virus, new pre-trip requirements for checking the bus, and disinfecting and sanitizing the buses after every run has added to the stress and responsibility of the job, said Vincent Nesci, a bus driver and president of the New Hartford Employees Union.
Starting pay for a bus driver in his district has been $14.37 an hour, he said, but the school is moving that to $15.38 an hour, the equivalent of a step four in the salary schedule.
“COVID has really impacted how we operate,” he said. “We haven’t had anybody walk out because of COVID, but we have had drivers quarantining or contract COVID.”
Last year, the spacing requirements meant fewer students were allowed on each bus. Some students were still virtual, so that balanced it out. With the return to in-person learning, “we never would have had enough drivers — no school would have — if (spacing requirements) would have continued,” said Nesci.
“We’ve always been short drivers, but by the end of last year it was quite significant,” he said.
Potential new drivers face tougher requirements for the CDL, he said, and longer training times. It also takes longer to get into the Department of Motor Vehicles to get an appointment.
Nesci, a retired police captain in Utica, said he has enjoyed working as a public servant, and he sees driving buses as another version of that.
“You get to know students by name and face,” he said. “You’re the first one they meet in the morning. You can change their outlook and their mood.”