Demanding Drives: BCPS experiences bus driver shortage; drivers unhappy with wages

As BCPS returns to in-person school, staff shortages are everywhere, bus drivers included– not fully because of the unknowns of COVID-19, but because they feel their salaries don’t reflect the work they are putting in

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Mariajose Vera

Bus driver at MSD waits as her students pile in to be taken home at the end of the day. This will be one of many pickups before her day is over as each elementary, middle and high school gets out during the last week before winter break.

Kate Becker, Section editor

We are not satisfied.”

— Anonymous BCPS bus driver

As of late September, due to a negotiation with the Federation of Public and Private Employees (the national union for public and private workers of all jobs who work to improve their working conditions and wages), BCPS agreed to a recruitment retention salary adjustment which raised all bus drivers’ hourly pay to a base rate of $16.50. However, with the conditions that COVID-19 has added to the already arguably taxing job and the fact that bus drivers are still not paid anywhere near other transportation jobs, bus drivers are feeling they deserve another raise to their salaries.

Past and Present Problems

As BCPS approaches the end of the first semester of the 2021-2022 school year, the district has continued to run into a multitude of staffing problems, one of which being bus driver shortages. This is BCPS’ first year back to fully in-person learning since the COVID-19 pandemic closed all schools in March 2020, which comes with new problems. 

During e-Learning, while the option of in-person or online learning was available, a significantly small percentage of Broward County students returned. According to a previous report by the Eagle Eye, less than 25% of students in each grade level at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School returned during the second semester of the 2020-2021 school year. This meant a very low need for bus drivers throughout the county, and the number of bus drivers decreased as they left from the safety concerns with driving during a pandemic. 

Many bus drivers were worried about being exposed to COVID-19 due to being in an enclosed space with various students throughout the day. Others were upset with the previous and current mask policies, or a lack thereof. Now, with the transition back to in-person learning, these concerns still exist but the demand for bus drivers has risen to those of previous years.

“As a bus driver, COVID has impacted us in many ways. First, we are the first employees whom the kids make contact with in the morning, so if they are sick, we are listed among the last ones to be informed about the COVID case, and we also have families to protect,” an anonymous BCPS bus driver said.

In a September SunSentinel report, BCPS had about 200 vacancies, or 17% of its positions. When the Eagle Eye reached out to the North Area Transportation Terminal, they were unable to provide updated data on bus drivers vacancies in time. This has caused the doubling of stops, extra shifts for drivers and students across the county waiting for huge periods of time to get home.

Additionally, the automated voice message for North Area Transportation Terminal, the bus route district of BCPS that MSD is located in, states the following: Due to a national extreme bus operator shortage, the transportation department is asking for your patience as you may experience some delay in your bus service. Please rest assured that transportation is working diligently to provide the best service possible during these challenging times. Please check virtual counselors regularly for any changes or updates to your students’ bus information.

But, besides these factors, the biggest issue for bus drivers throughout all this is their salaries. 

Leaving Drivers in the Dust

Salaries for bus drivers have been an issue for years, but with the intense and scary conditions drivers have been put in during the pandemic, bus drivers are pushed over the edge.

According to a report by Payscale, the average salary of a bus driver in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. is $17.45 an hour. This is significantly less than the average salary of other transportation drivers in the state, especially private companies; for comparison, UPS delivery drivers make an average of $21.92 an hour in Florida. This makes bus drivers have lower overall salaries and also reduces the appeal to the job, making it hard for the district to hire new bus drivers and fill their current vacancies.

Especially considering that not only is their pay lower overall, the conditions of the job are arguably more difficult than other transportation drivers since they have to safely transport children (as opposed to transporting packages). Bus drivers transport students ranging from the ages of six to 18 years old, meaning they encounter all different situations like fights, medical complications, injuries and even being attacked.

Additionally, the hours of bus drivers are long, stretching from around 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. or later. Throughout the day, drivers go to multiple different elementary, middle and high schools throughout their area for pickup and drop off. With staggered start and end times, bus drivers must drive to each of their different stops, drop the students off at the school, pick up the next few stops of students, drop the students off at their school, and so on. With the lack of bus drivers, doubling of stops has added more stops and pickups to current bus drivers schedules. However, their pay has not changed in a reflective manner.

“Because of the shortage of drivers, we cover more routes and sometimes we double-back, like me in the morning,” an anonymous BCPS bus driver said. “This year they [have] force[d] me to go to Douglas twice in the morning. In the first round, I arrive at 6:40 am, and the second is at 7:20 am.”

At the beginning of the school year, BCPS began advertising on their website the open positions for drivers. In addition to a starting salary of $15.41 for new drivers, new hires also received an additional $500 sign-on bonus. All tests/training needed to become a driver and self-enhancement classes were also free of charge. 

Although these incentives were an attempt by BCPS to recruit new drivers, this resulted in upsetting current drivers, considering many long time workers did not have a much larger salary in comparison nor the sign-on bonus advertised for new drivers.

One anonymous bus driver for BCPS stated that at the beginning of the school year they were making $15.75 after working at MSD since 2018 and within BCPS for around 18 years. This means that although this driver has 18 years of experience, they are only making an additional 34 cents more an hour than new bus drivers.

This was the case for many other bus drivers in the county, and many bus drivers were considering quitting, which would have made bus driver shortages even worse. Therefore in late September the FOPE had a discussion with BCPS and was able to raise the starting salary of bus drivers from $15.50 to $16.50. The sign-on bonus and free tests are still available to new hirees.

For those who were hired before this school year, they were given an additional 25 to 50 cent increase. However, those who have worked 10+ years have still not seen a larger change in their salary difference.

“The school board did what you call a recruiting retention salary adjustment and what it was, the drivers that had been here for so many years [who] were [making] $15.41 are now [making] 16.50 hour,” FOPE Vice President Linda Luis said. “Those who were originally making $15.41 got an increase to $16.50 an hour. This is the new hiring salary. All those who were hired before this are now also making $16.50 in order to retain their employment.”

Paying the Bills

Now considering the conditions and hours are extremely taxing, it begs the question “why hasn’t the district significantly raised their salary?” The answer is budget.

The Florida state government covers 45% of all transportation costs for students in a 2-mile radius of their school. This leaves about $500 million left for each district in the state to pay for. The majority of this fund already goes to the salaries of drivers, and considering there is no way for BCPS or other state counties to raise money, it makes it very difficult for them to continue to raise bus drivers salaries. 

The FOPE has stated that they, too, are planning another salary increase for all drivers. Still, the current situation for bus drivers has not changed, leaving the county understaffed and forcing students who rely on bus transportation either stranded or experiencing long wait times to get their rides.