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Where did all the bus drivers go?: 'It basically boils down to pay'

Posted at 10:45 AM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-31 18:21:56-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- For the past week, the CBS 6 Problem Solvers have been flooded with calls and emails from Chesterfield parents frustrated about a slew of school bus issues including delays and long lines at drop-off.

School officials have pointed to a shortage of bus drivers, which seems to be causing a majority of the problems.

It's a trend not only seen in Chesterfield County, but across other parts of Central Virginia and the rest of the country.

So where did all the drivers go and why aren't they behind the wheel anymore?

"I loved being a bus driver," said Brittney Puryear. "I loved seeing the kids."

Puryear, a Chester mother, thoroughly enjoyed her job of three years as a bus driver for Chesterfield County Public Schools.

"Everybody loves their child to death," she said. "We have the world's most precious cargo."

But in January, when the U.S. was experiencing a COVID-19 winter surge and many children were learning virtually, Puryear decided she would no longer sit behind the wheel.

But her reason why had nothing to do with the raging pandemic.

"I decided not to come back due to the amount of money that they were paying," she said.

"How much were you getting paid?" we asked.

"Let's see, every two weeks my check might have been $650-$700," she replied.

With multiple children of her own to take care of, Puryear said she was forced to find a different job. Since she already had a commercial driver's license, she applied to FedEx and landed a position.

"I get paid double the amount to deliver a Chewy box to [peoples'] dogs than I do to make sure that their kids get back and forth to school," she said.

Puryear's reason for quitting her job is also the top reason other drivers across the country are doing the same thing, according to economists.

"It basically boils down to pay," said economics professor at Old Dominion University, Bob McNab. "If school districts aren't increasing pay, it's going to be very hard to attract people to drive school buses."

McNab explained school bus drivers are paid little to deal with a high level of stress, and they also have infrequent work schedules. Then, like nearly every other job, workers factor in concerns of the pandemic.

Older people, an age group most vulnerable to COVID-19, typically made up a large portion of school bus drivers. Additionally, students younger than 12 years old have not had an opportunity to get vaccinated.

The National School Transportation Association has said enhanced unemployment benefits are also contributing to the shortage of drivers, but McNab said there's little evidence to support that claim.

"The idea that somehow expanded unemployment benefits are to blame for the school bus driver shortage and almost every other labor shortage is out there," he said. "Those expanded unemployment benefits end the first week of September and even when they're ending, we're seeing that people are not signing up to drive school buses in states that have ended the expanded unemployment benefits."

To ramp up hiring efforts and fill about 100 vacancies, Chesterfield Schools is raising the hourly wage for bus drivers from $17.21 to $20.21.

The increase makes Chesterfield the highest paying district for drivers in Central Virginia. Chesterfield is also offering a bonus up to $3,000 spread across several months.

Henrico Schools, which is down about 115 drivers, starts them off at $14.90 per hour. That's one of the lowest rates in the region. To try and attract new workers, Henrico also introduced bonuses up to $3,000.

Will that be enough?

"Signing bonuses really don't work because employees can do the math and figure out very quickly that signing bonuses don't increase their base wage," McNab said.

Other professionals in the school transportation industry are concerned about the future of school buses.

"It's going to be really hard for the industry to recover," said Joanna McFarland, the CEO of HopSkipDrive, a ride share service that focuses on school transportation.

She said school districts need to come up with innovative solutions.

"The yellow school bus is the safest way to get kids to school, but the yellow school bus doesn't always make sense anymore," she said. "In a world where we just don't have enough bus drivers, and we aren't going to recover those bus drivers, we have to start really rethinking the school transportation model."

For Puryear, she's not totally against returning to the job. She just has one condition which the Chesterfield school district now aims to meet.

"If they pay more, I will definitely go back because I love seeing kids," Puryear said. "I love them more than I do delivering packages."

For frustrated families feeling the impacts of the bus driver shortage, Puryear encourages them to be patient. She said the drivers who are behind the wheel right now are putting in extra work to get students to school safely.

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