The Potluck

Amid historic shortage, school bus drivers push for higher wages and unemployment benefits

By: - September 13, 2021 4:05 pm

Snow-covered school buses are parked during the winter holiday in Cloquet, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Unionized school bus drivers say they know how to fix the historic shortage of drivers that’s led to hour-long delays for students: Give drivers higher wages, more hours and access to unemployment benefits.

“We need more money. We need more hours. We need these to become real jobs,” said Kelly Gibbons, a former school bus driver and executive director of SEIU Local 284, during a press conference on Monday. “There’s always money for the admin and the higher ups, but there’s never money for the workers.”

Some school bus companies have increased wages and offered starting bonuses to attract more drivers amid a nationwide labor shortage touching everything from food service to construction to nursing.

But the incentives have not been enough to fill hundreds of vacant positions in Minnesota ahead of the school year. The shortage of drivers has forced school districts across the state to scale back service, combine routes and even turn to private cab drivers.

In Minneapolis, the district began offering to pay families to drive their students to school to free up space on buses. In St. Paul, where the district says it is short about 100 drivers, some students were given Metro Transit cards. In Stillwater, the district sued the bus company for being an hour late on routes.

Across the state, school bus drivers have had to drive longer routes to make up for the shortage of drivers.

Gus Froemke, communications and legislative director for Teamsters Local 320, pointed to Minneapolis, where the school district went from 30 special education routes to 13.

“Our drivers are doing the work of several other employees,” Froemke said. “This is not a bus driver shortage. This is a bus driver crisis.”

Froemke also raised alarm over Minneapolis Public Schools turning to private cab drivers to take students to school.

A spokeswoman for Minneapolis Public Schools said the district has used taxi cab companies for years when buses aren’t an option and noted that taxi drivers must go through the same background checks as school bus drivers.

In addition to low wages, school bus drivers also often struggle to get full-time hours while also working long days because of the split shift — not to mention the stress of driving dozens of rowdy kids through a snowstorm.

Teresa Jakubowski, a school bus driver in Rosemount and SEIU Local 284 member, said their days typically start at 5:45 a.m. and end at 4:45 p.m. But they’re only paid for six to eight hours, when they’re driving, even though drivers often spend 11 hours in transportation centers or on buses while technically off the clock.

School bus drivers don’t get a paycheck during the summer break, and they also can’t draw on unemployment under state law. During the recent legislative session, the Democratic-led House pushed to allow school bus drivers to apply for unemployment benefits during off months, but the measure failed to make it through the Republican-controlled Senate.

“If you had to do without a paycheck for three months, could you make your bills?” Gibbons asked. “Be honest, you couldn’t. And a lot of times people don’t want to hire you for those summer months because they know you’re not going to stay.”

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.