School Bus Drivers Make School Possible. They Deserve Better.

Current pay and benefits for school bus drivers are grossly incommensurate with their incredibly challenging, multifaceted work. When they’re exploited and mistreated, drivers and kids both suffer the consequences.

Jacqueline Smith, a driver-dispatcher and vice president of transportation for her union local, told Jacobin that staffing shortages are causing her and her colleagues to do “double work.” (Armand Aviram)

There’s a term school bus drivers use for the calling many feel to provide kids with protective supervision, comfort, and cheerful encouragement on their daily commutes. They call it “bleeding yellow.”

But ask any nurse or teacher, and they’ll tell you the same thing as many yellow-blooded school bus drivers: Caring is one thing. Having the resources to do the job effectively is another.

The 2021–22 school year has been marked by severe transportation problems across US school districts. In a nationwide survey of those in the pupil transportation industry conducted in August, 78 percent of respondents said their district’s bus driver shortages are getting worse, with 51 percent describing the situation as “severe” or “desperate.”

As a result, students are facing hours-long commutes, and parents are interrupting their work days to wait in lengthy pickup lines where busing is either unavailable or severely delayed. In September, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker activated the National Guard to drive kids to school in communities hard hit by COVID-19.

But while school bus driver shortages are more pronounced than in years past, they’re hardly new. Jacqueline Smith, a driver-dispatcher for Indian River County School District in Florida and vice president of transportation for her union local, told Jacobin that staffing shortages were causing her and her colleagues to do “double work” long before the pandemic.

According to annual survey data from School Bus Fleet magazine, more than half of US school districts have experienced driver shortages every year since at least 2006, and more than 70 percent of districts have experienced shortages for most of those years.

Why are US school systems plagued by chronic bus driver shortages? The reason isn’t that there’s a lack of jobseekers willing in theory to work as school bus drivers. It’s that pay and benefits are grossly incommensurate with the incredibly challenging, multifaceted work that school transportation entails.

Precious Cargo

Driving a school bus is a hard job. While teachers may, understandably, struggle to maintain order in classrooms of twenty-five students, school bus drivers are expected to observe up to seventy-two rowdy children with a mirror and manage their behavior while driving a fifteen-ton vehicle along a complex route. School bus drivers need to quickly gain the trust of unfamiliar kids and project the kind of authority that can compel young passengers back to their seats with a word uttered from forty feet away.

Like long-haul trucking, school bus driving requires a high-stakes mix of alertness, navigational skill, and mechanical knowledge. Riley Wilson, who drives school buses for Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa, told Jacobin that because his role requires him to handle different routes each day, he has to “do a lot of on-the-spot navigation and course-correcting in an area [he is] completely unfamiliar with in order to get to the next stop without falling behind the route’s scheduled timing.” Wilson continued, “It’s incredibly stressful to be making all of those mental calculations while also dealing with managing the physical size of the bus on the road and the students onboard.”

School transportation also entails a number of critical and often stressful human service components. Drivers must be prepared to handle medical emergencies, de-escalate student conflicts, and problem-solve in situations where children do not have a safe place to be dropped off. Jacqueline Smith described the human service side of her job:

We’re the first and the last to see the children. You don’t know what that child has experienced the night before. . . . You’d be surprised how many kids I’ve had to counsel, keeping them on the right track . . . some children, not knowing whether the school meal is gonna be the only meal that they’re receiving. I mean our drivers . . . buy things for kids. . . . They see something maybe this child is not receiving.

“They Don’t Want to Pay You”

Joey Griffin has been driving school buses in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, for over twenty years. Illustrating the concept of “bleeding yellow,” he told Jacobin, “Your ride is what sets their mood as they arrive at school. A lot of drivers, you would hear them say, ‘Those are my children!’”

The trouble is this devotion is not rewarded with adequate pay and benefits.

As a driver-dispatcher, Jacqueline Smith must meet arduous administrative challenges. She rises at 3:30 AM each morning and arrives to work at 4:45 AM to make the route assignments. When there aren’t enough drivers to cover all eighty-four routes — a daily occurrence — she must divide uncovered routes among the remaining staff. After solving this logistical jigsaw puzzle, depending on coverage needs, she sets out for her morning pickups.

In her thirtieth year on the job, she’s earning less than $19 an hour. Although whopping insurance costs are subtracted from each paycheck, Smith still has $65 medical copays.

Jacqueline Smith drives a school bus for the for Indian River County School District in Florida. “We’re the first and last to see the children,” she says. (Armand Aviram)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) did not collect wage data specifically for school bus drivers in 2019 and 2020, but BLS economist Elka Torpey told Jacobin that their median hourly wage in 2018 was $15.58. According to David Cooper, who directs the Economic Policy Institute’s Economic Analysis and Research Network, the number appears to be similar for 2020. At full-time, year-round hours, it’s not enough for a single adult to sustain an acceptable standard of living in many states — let alone raise kids or plan for retirement.

And school bus drivers are not even guaranteed full-time, year-round hours. During the school year, they may work as few as four or five hours each day, on split-shift schedules that interfere with their ability to find other daytime employment. Riley Wilson told Jacobin he “doesn’t know of anyone who has time to work a job” during the gap between morning and afternoon routes. He also noted that drivers experience “extreme scheduling variability,” with circumstances such as weather resulting in sudden school closures and delayed openings. Wilson’s employer does not pay drivers for snow days.

During the summer months, school bus drivers may not drive at all. And if they work for a school district, they are typically barred from collecting unemployment assistance. Private contractors may enable their staff to receive unemployment by laying them off each summer.

Diane Renaud, a Western Massachusetts driver who has worked for both contractors and districts, told Jacobin that large contractors tend to be especially “cheap:” “They don’t want to pay you a lot of wages. They want to keep as much money as they can for themselves.”

With the difficult-to-obtain commercial driver’s license necessary to become a school bus driver, it’s possible to earn better pay and benefits in a number of other transportation professions. Thus, like teachers, school bus drivers are asked to sacrifice the ability to earn what their similarly credentialed peers take home in other fields.

Unlike most school transportation workers, Jacqueline Smith is considered full-time. But she still needs a second job in order to feed the three grandkids she’s raising and afford her hefty health care costs. “And do I have to steal from Peter to pay Paul? Yes,” Smith says. She’s frustrated by the unfairness: “We get paid less than UPS, which transports paper. . . . Where is the consideration for bus drivers transporting these parents’ precious cargo? . . . That is a life that you cannot replace.”

A More Conspicuous Problem

Considering the lopsided relationship between what school transportation staff give to their work and what they’re offered in return, it’s not surprising that districts and contractors have been struggling to retain employees and attract new ones.

School bus driver shortages have gotten some long overdue press during the pandemic. And indeed, COVID-19 has made everything worse: following the trauma of the past two years, student behaviors are more unruly, posing added safety concerns. In November, a school bus plunged into a creek in Easton, Pennsylvania, injuring the driver and thirteen students. The subsequent investigation found the driver lost control of the vehicle when a disruptive incident on board pulled her attention away from the road.

Multiple K-12 transportation workers who spoke to Jacobin described getting no support from their school administrations when students are, in Jacqueline Smith’s words, “totally out of control.” When drivers are employed by contractors rather than districts, it becomes that much easier for school leadership to view their safety concerns as someone else’s problem.

Parents are more agitated these days as well, lashing out at drivers for everything from mask mandates to late pickups and drop-offs. Lateness is caused by staffing shortages, which are becoming progressively worse as drivers quit or fall ill with COVID-19. Because school bus drivers need a second source of income (and often, benefits), a significant number are older retirees on Medicare. Older people and those with underlying health conditions are logically reluctant to spend hours-long stretches aboard buses packed with potentially maskless students.

But COVID is simply making a preexisting crisis more conspicuous. What is termed a labor shortage is really a shortage of pay, support, and respect for the people who do this vital work. And as with teacher staffing problems, the primary culprits are privatization and underfunding.

Michael Cordiello, the New York City school bus worker leader for the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), told Jacobin that when the city began outsourcing school transit to private contractors, compensation and benefits deteriorated: “The only place you could save money is labor, right? . . . Where do you save money when you put out a bid to try and underbid somebody?”

In an interview with Jacobin, Cordiello and ATU’s international president John Costa explained that New York City school bus drivers could once count on having a career that afforded them good, dignified lives. Now many are, in Costa’s words, “transient labor,” forced to stitch together their survival with a patchwork of side-hustles.

As counties and districts have grown, and the costs of fuel, auto parts, and employee living have risen, state budgets for school transportation have largely remained stagnant since the Great Recession. The price of this stagnation is student safety.

As vehicles age and go unreplaced, some lack key safety features. And drivers lack the ability to support functional lives on their paltry wages. Zina Ronca, a school bus driver supervisor in West Grove, Pennsylvania, explained to Jacobin:

I have some drivers here [who] I actually have to ask, “Are you ok to drive? . . . because I kind of overheard you just worked an overnight shift.” They’re tired. They’re exhausted. And that morning run, chances are, that’s when something’s gonna happen.

A Better Way

Well-maintained school buses are the safest vehicles on the road. When districts fulfill what is in many states a legal requirement to provide school transportation, they reduce emissions and save families money on gas. What’s more, each yellow bus driver ensures that kids can get to school regardless of whether their parents have cars and free time in the mornings and afternoons. The refusal to provide K-12 transportation workers with desirable compensation thus hinders the universal access to education that undergirds democratic society.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In an effort to retain workers and attract new ones, some districts and contractors have meaningfully improved wages and benefits. The most promising models are publicly run operations that make school bus drivers full-time district or municipal employees. In Michael Cordiello’s words: “It’s a public service. Let the public run it.”

These kinds of solutions require states and municipalities to seriously step up their investments in K-12 transportation. But as David Cooper points out, “Policymakers at the state and local level have — in most cases — unprecedented levels of financial support right now from the federal government. . . . So, they have resources to start fixing this problem.”

School transportation staff have been taking collective action to insist on improvements. Throughout the fall and winter, school bus drivers engaged in strikes and sick-outs across the United States, protesting low pay and unsafe working conditions. And John Costa told Jacobin that the ATU is seeing an uptick in K-12 transportation staff seeking union representation.

Maritsa Velez, a school bus monitor in Hartford, Connecticut, told Jacobin she decided to organize her colleagues this fall, after dealing with the minimum wage, no benefits, and disrespectful bosses for ten years: “I just thought it was time.”

Jacqueline Smith told Jacobin her bargaining unit of the Communications Workers of America is preparing to renegotiate their wages soon: “You know, we need raises. We wanna be recognized. We wanna be able to have a voice on what insurance company they’re using.”

Smith says Indian River County School District can fix their driver shortage if they make real changes: “I think if they come up with a better plan as far as benefits and pay, people will be running at the door to get hired.”