School Bus
[File Photo]

Southeast Ohio addresses bus driver shortage

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) – Athens schools will start the new year with a full slate of bus drivers for the first time in three years.

The challenge now is keeping those drivers because the underlying problems that created the shortage haven’t gone away.

Schools across the country have struggled to fill vacant positions because the pay and the hours make it difficult to earn a living, and fewer people are driving buses as a secondary source of income.

Athens Superintendent Tom Gibbs said driver shortages impact day-to-day schedules by making drivers double up routes, which changes pickup and drop-off times. The shortage also affects transportation for after-school activities such as sporting events.

“It’s been a real challenge for the district but also for the parents who’ve had to change work schedules at the last minute,” Gibbs said, “and try to get their students to and from both practices and events.”  

Parents have expressed their frustrations on social media, asking school boards to do more.

Gibbs acknowledged the first disruption caused by the shortage of bus drivers is after-school activities.

“Our primary job is to get kids to and from school,” he said. “If you have a few drivers out … then you are literally using all of your in-house folks to fill those spots. And so you end up having to postpone athletic trips, having to disrupt any opportunity to provide transfer buses, things of that nature.”

Federal Hocking Local Schools Superintendent David Hanning said he also has enough full-time drivers for the year, but is concerned about a lack of substitute drivers.

“We are always trying to recruit,” he said. “And our transportation supervisor does a good job of trying to have a couple people available.”

Hanning said their transportation supervisor and garage staff can fill in if a bus driver is absent.

He said the biggest challenges in hiring drivers are the working conditions and the pay.

“It’s a dangerous job. A lot of people don’t consider that,” Hanning said. “It doesn’t pay a lot. You’re not getting paid 40 hours a week as a driver.”

Bus drivers get paid for five hours of work per day over a nine-month period.

Another factor that contributes to the driver shortage in southeast Ohio is the changing demographics. Many bus drivers used to have other primary sources of income, like a small business, and driving was a way to make some extra money.

“What we are seeing more is there are fewer people who are running small businesses of that nature,” Gibbs said, “and so more people are taking these positions hoping to make a living wage and provide for their families.”

Dan Fuchs talking about his experience with the bus driver shortage
Dan Fuchs talking about his experience with the bus driver shortage. [Jack Demler | WOUB]
Dan Fuchs, an Athens bus driver, said the low pay makes it an impossibility to have it as one’s only job.

Fuchs became a bus driver when he first noticed the issue of the driver shortage.

“Last year when school was canceled for two weeks because too many bus drivers were sick and in quarantine, that is what led me to start the process to become a bus driver,” he said.

Fuchs said he did not need the job but had the time and wanted to help his community.

The Athens City School District has been working to figure out ways to incentivize bus drivers. For example, it is increasing drivers’ pay by 10 percent to $20.43 starting in September.

For reference, working full time at $15 an hour works out to $600 a week while bus drivers working 25 hours a week at an hourly rate of $20.43 would earn $510.75 per week.

“We are hoping the higher pay and then reimbursing people for their time and expenses for renewing their CDLs … will encourage more people to work with us and stay with us for an extended period of time,” Gibbs said.

While Fuchs is grateful for the pay increase, the time it took to get it caused a lot of issues. Fuchs faults the bus drivers’ union for the delay.

The AFSCME Union consists of many different jobs including bus drivers
Fuchs said the AFSCME Union contributed to the bus driver shortage.

According to Fuchs, the pay increase was supposed to come sooner but due to the union, the school board could not get it done. Fuchs said members of the union at first voted down the pay increase.

John Johnson, regional director for the Athens chapter of the AFSCME union, said he believes the members voted against the pay increase because they believed they should be paid more.

“I always want more for everybody,” Johnson said. “I want as much as you can get for the members.”

Johnson said another factor that contributed to the bus driver shortage is the fact that drivers for Athens schools get paid less than those in surrounding districts, which led them to negotiate new contracts.

Johnson said he believes the new pay increase will make bus driver positions in Athens more competitive.