States, cities grapple with critical school bus driver shortage
School districts around the country are struggling to fill thousands of bus driver positions as worker shortages lead to late arrivals and last-minute scrambles to bring retired workers back onto payrolls.
The shortages are so bad in some places that districts are taking extraordinary steps to get kids to school as students return to in-person classes this fall. Philadelphia’s school district will pay families $300 a month, or $3,000 for the year, to opt out of transportation services and get their kids to school on their own. Albemarle County Public Schools in Virginia is offering a $2,500 bonus to new drivers — $100 more than the school district in the county seat, Charlottesville, is offering.
In Boston, the shortage is so acute that some schools have resorted to atypical transportation: An 11th grade language teacher at one charter school recently went viral on Twitter when he documented a class field trip on board a party bus with a stripper pole and neon lights.
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) last week called up 250 members of the Massachusetts National Guard to help ease the shortage across his state. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) is considering a similar deployment.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) have both directed state agencies to ease restrictions on potential new hires to get them driving buses sooner.
In New York, Hochul has ordered state agencies to reach out to more than half a million commercial driver license holders to recruit new drivers. The Department of Motor Vehicles is eliminating a 14-day waiting period between a permit test and a road test for obtaining a CDL. Those road tests can now be conducted on large lots owned by the New York Racing Association, the State University of New York system and the Thruway Authority.
“Our schools and public health officials have moved mountains to ensure our children receive an in-person education this year, and we are leaving no stone unturned to make sure schools have adequate bus service to bring students to school and back,” Hochul said in a statement.
Maryland’s Motor Vehicle Administration will hold a special Bus Driver’s Day on Saturday, with special appointments set aside at six sites across the state. Hogan’s administration has set up a central scheduling service to allow for same-day appointments for those applying for a CDL.
“No industry is immune to the national labor shortage, but for parents relieved to finally have their kids back in the classroom, this is another unwanted uncertainty,” Hogan told The Hill in a statement. “At the state level, I have directed the MVA to do whatever it can administratively to support school systems and help get more bus drivers on the road.”
In cities and towns across America, students are arriving late to class, and late home from school.
“We’re about 200 drivers short, and that’s in a September that started out with less routes than we had in June,” said Michael Cordiello, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181-1061, which represents thousands of bus drivers in New York City. “I assume it’s going to get worse.”
School administrators and organizations representing thousands of bus drivers from across the country say the crunch is the result of a perfect storm at the end of 18 months of school closures. When in-person classes were restricted, many districts had to lay off drivers, who then either retired or found higher-paying work in other sectors. Those with commercial driver licenses were particularly in demand as Americans turned to online shopping and delivery services.
Many school districts contract with private vendors to provide busing services that are driven by their own profit motivations. Those that manage their own fleets of drivers and buses are hemmed in by budget constraints, making it difficult for them to ramp up employee rosters quickly.
The job searching website Indeed featured 291 advertisements seeking school bus drivers per million job listings in August, according to an analysis the company conducted for The Hill. That is about 11 percent higher than at the same point last year, and almost identical to August 2019, before the pandemic struck.
Those who represent school bus workers say the longer-term solution lies in increasing wages and benefits for a job that is chronically underpaid, especially as salaries rise in other associated industries.
“You can’t pay these ridiculous wages, no benefits, no pensions, 401ks that people can’t afford to put into anyway,” said John Costa, the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union. “We’ve been complaining about this and trying to help this industry because we knew this day would come.”