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Aug 23

COVID-19 pandemic amplifies school bus driver shortage concerns

Keira Wingate USA TODAY
Published 6:02 a.m. ET Aug. 22, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the nationwide school bus driver shortage.

The long-standing lack of bus drivers – with at least 55,000 fewer than just two years ago because of retirements and some choosing just not to come back to work – poses a problem with in-person classes fully returning in the fall, said Joanna McFarland, co-founder and CEO of HopSkipDrive.

Throughout the country, schools are struggling to find drivers. Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware are just some of the multiple states who don’t have enough drivers. In Pittsburgh, public schools are delaying the first day of school by two weeks, due to being short 420 bus drivers.

“We had to get really creative during the pandemic with food delivery,” McFarland said. “We’re gonna have to do the same thing with transportation. Mobility is access to opportunity, and if you can’t get somewhere, it doesn’t matter how great the program or school is.”

When New York City schools shut down at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, thousands of school bus drivers were out of a job. Many drivers lost health insurance benefits and many relied upon unemployment benefits.

Michael Cordiello, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 in New York City, says for five months his members were out of work with no benefits and no pay resulting in many quitting or retiring.

Cordiello, who represents some 8,000 school bus workers in New York City and a few thousand more throughout the state, added that hundreds became sick, and 34 drivers died from COVID-19. This has made many drivers leery about returning to their jobs, he said.

“New York City alone is short 250 drivers, and we’re not even at full capacity yet,” he said. “I think it's going to be much worse going into the school year.”

Cordiello adds that the shortage is “even worse now” than in 2013 when 3,000 school bus drivers at union 1181 lost their jobs because of a bid made by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg that caused workers to lose health benefits and lowered pay.

A report done by HopSkipDrive, a vehicle-for-hire company that helps match districts to families who need rides to school, shows that 78% of school transportation staff and superintendents who were surveyed are constrained by the scarcity of bus drivers. The survey showed 81% say COVID-19 has exacerbated the existing shortage of drivers.

There were 370,000 school bus drivers across the country employed in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The most-updated report that was released in May 2020 from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that there are 314,920 school bus drivers, a nearly 15% drop from the previous year.

Further, the pay isn’t great, and in some states it’s just slightly higher than minimum wage even though drivers are entrusted with driving children.

The average median pay for a school bus driver in 2020 was $16.67 per hour – only an 11-cent increase from 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Those records show that 10% of drivers only made $9.53 an hour as of May 2020.

“As a result of the pandemic, we’ve seen retirement like we haven’t seen before,” Cordiello said. From April 2020 to March 2021, “there was a 21% increase in our members retiring.”

Cordiello says that many of the older school bus drivers have been nervous to drive during the pandemic and are leaving primarily for safety reasons. He added that his union has only hired 220 people, but 244 have retired.

"For the first time in I think in forever, that I can at least remember, retirees are outpacing new hires," he said.

"So unless the industry as a whole does something different to attract drivers, I think this is going to continue. And the pandemic just made it a little bit worse,” he added.

John Costa, Amalgamated Transit Union International President, agrees. He says bus drivers have to start getting paid more in order to continue working.

"If they don't come up with the money then they need to look into better benefits," he said. "They need better incentives for 401(k), pensions and far better health insurance."

With new safety protocols, cleaning regimens and fear of exposure, retaining bus drivers remains a challenge – especially because 73% of school bus drivers are over the age of 55, according to AARP.

“There is a shortage of drivers, and people are leaving not only because of the grueling year of illness, but the loss of work, the loss of medical benefits,” Cordiello said. “It’s been a very rough year for our members.”

 

Low wages, DMV hold up and more work equals fewer drivers

Unlike millions of Americans who could work from home during the pandemic, school bus driving hinges on in-person interaction.

With many schools going virtual during the pandemic there were few options for school bus drivers, and it can take weeks of training to bring new drivers on board, said 65-year-old Frank Butler. He has been a school bus driver for 14 years in the McMinnville, Oregon, area, about 47 miles southwest of Portland in the Willamette Valley.

He began training drivers in 2011.

Initially, the Newberg school district he worked for planned for in-person learning to  resume in September 2020, after the pandemic in mid-March shuttered schools in Oregon and around the country.

But after training new drivers and preparing for what he thought would be a bit of normalcy in July 2020, he was furloughed and hasn’t trained or driven since because the district canceled in-person classes.

“We started recruiting and training drivers in anticipation of that plan,” Butler said. “Due to the state of Oregon refusing to allow in-person schooling, the wheels fell off the bus and all hiring and training came to an immediate halt.”

Butler said he tried to find jobs in other school districts as either a trainer or tester, which would have allowed him to keep his Oregon training certificates. But he said “company policies kept him from doing that.”

He was brought back from furlough in March of this year in hopes to hire and train more drivers. But interest in school bus driving is low, despite up to a $6,500 signing and training completion bonus. An incentive other districts are doing, as well.

Butler adds that the DMV “is shuttered and by appointment only, making it hard to take written tests in a timely manner needed for training.”

His district is currently short 13 drivers, which means 13 routes can’t be completed in the upcoming school year.

 

Shortage to continue into fall

The ongoing school bus driver shortage is looking like it will continue even as vaccinations increase throughout the country, Butler says.

He adds that the safety requirements for bus drivers will require more training and cleaning time, which may deter new drivers from coming on board in addition to concerns about low wages.

“There’s additional job requirements in an effort to maintain a safe environment for the kids,” Butler said. “So that extra work without an increase in pay is turning people away because now you’re asking them to do more stuff and not pay for it.”

McFarland says there are alternative job opportunities that pay a lot more, require less regulation, fewer requirements and offer more hours, furthering the strain on current drivers.

Cher Fromm, 61, lives in Oregon where she’s been driving school buses for almost half of her life.

Her job as a driver was just extra “fun money” while her husband was the real bread winner, she said. When he died of Leukemia in 1994, driving buses became her main source of income. Her income slowly disappeared once COVID-19 became a real threat in early 2020.

“My company and school district scrambled for ways to keep our drivers at least partly employed. After a couple of weeks of uncertainty, my co-workers and I were called upon to deliver food to stay-at-home children,” she said. “We worked for one hour a day, and got paid for four hours of our time. It wasn't bad, but the pay was definitely not enough to survive on.”

With more than 50 million students attending elementary, middle and high school across the U.S., school bus drivers have played a crucial role in getting them to and from school.

While 71.3% of the U.S. population is at least partly vaccinated and children as young as 12 are able to receive a dose, there is still fear of the upcoming school year being short thousands of drivers, Butler says.

This is a systemic problem to the industry and they have to rework how they think about transportation, alternative vehicle sizes and efficiency in using all vehicle types, according to McFarland.

“This shortage isn’t going away, it may get a little better, but it’s not going to go away,” she said. “We have to make sure that we’re not limiting ourselves from solving these very real problems and getting kids to school.”