School bus driver crisis forces quick fixes

MGN

Union says MPS not paying drivers enough to keep them

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) are currently facing a bus driver shortage. The shortage is part of a larger nationwide issue that has only gotten worse with the pandemic, when most schools transitioned to remote learning. 

Bus services have been forced to lay off many of their drivers, and some of those who were not laid off are now quitting voluntarily. The average age for most bus drivers is 56, and those who have quit have cited health concerns as a key reason, referring to overcrowded conditions and the fact that most children remain unvaccinated. 

Some states have taken extraordinary steps to address the driver shortage. Massachusetts has deployed National Guardsmen to drive school buses, inspiring Ohio and South Carolina who both plan to do the same. New York has started a large campaign to recruit drivers and Pennsylvania has implemented a transport reimbursement program to parents. New Jersey is doing something similar with a $1,000 flat rate to parents for driving their kids to school.

MPS, too, has had to get a bit creative with solutions. They’ve started by encouraging any families who can do so to opt-out of school transport so that the district can take some stops off the bus routes, saving time. They’ve also created a travel reimbursement program available to any family that submits a request. 

In response to sporadic and late busing, the district has introduced the “Here Comes the Bus” app for parents. This is a way to make sure the bus is on the way if it seems that it’s past its scheduled pick-up time. 

The district’s transport has also extended its list of available vehicles so that now, instead of simply buses (which require a special license to drive), students may be transported to school in a van or a taxi that requires no special license to operate. Perhaps the biggest way the district has chosen to address the driver shortage, however, is through their $3,000 hiring and retention bonus, as well as a driver-in-training hiring program that hires people without the CDL license for driving buses, and trains them through getting their license to drive.

According to the Teamsters local 320, the union that represents the bus drivers, these solutions are simply not enough to fix what’s causing the shortage—and that’s pay. Hannah Bernardson, a local rep with the union, said, “We have brought up the issue of pay a number of times with the district. Surrounding areas are starting at $22 to $26 per hour. Our people are being paid $19.53… 

“The drivers they have left are loyal and care,” said Bernardson. “If they didn’t, they could pick up a job easily making more. The district would rather pay the hiring bonuses, pay cab companies to transport students, and offer money to parents to bring their own children to school than to take care of their current employees and make the positions at MPS more appealing.” 

The Teamsters plan to address this issue with MPS on October 4 when they and the district will enter into negotiations. The union plans to propose a “substantial market adjustment” in the district’s driver pay, and says of the drivers, “They are organized and are ready to fight, whatever that shall mean.”

R.B. King welcomes reader responses to kaysi003@umn.edu.

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