Shortage of school bus drivers 'really bad' this year, says union

The union that represents school bus drivers on P.E.I. is warning of a shortage of people willing to work behind the wheel as substitute drivers.

That's contributing to delays and outright cancellations as parents try to get their children to school.

It's a situation the Public Schools Branch said it's trying to get ahead of.

"Last year it was bad but this year, it's really bad," said Robert Coughlin, vice-president, local 1145, Canadian Union of Public Employees. "Especially for substitute drivers."

Brian Higgins/CBC

The Public Schools Branch currently has a pool of just over 50 substitute drivers province-wide. They fill in on short notice, when any of the Island's regular drivers are not available. 

According to the union, many substitute drivers are working flat out, and the pool is just too small to meet demand.

"We've had buses not run and that's due to the heavy shortage," said Coughlin.

'Rate of pay is not up there'

Part of the problem is the hourly rate of pay and total hours offered to substitute drivers, according to the union. Substitute drivers are paid $17.80 an hour. They're typically paid for five hours work for doing the morning and afternoon runs.

"I believe it's possibly the rate of pay is not up there where some like to see it. Hours is another thing," said Coughlin.

Brian Higgins/CBC

School officials concede there's probably a lot of truth in that.

They said P.E.I.'s strong economy is creating a labour shortage and that's making it hard to hold onto employees, especially for part-time and on-call positions such as substitute drivers.

"Substitutes in particular aren't guaranteed hours of work. This is probably a big concern," said Dave Gillis, leader of corporate services with Public Schools Branch. 

Brian Higgins/CBC

Workforce dynamics, such as retirements and long-term leaves, are also putting pressure on the bus driver labour pool. Of 231 permanent full-time drivers, 31 are currently on leave, according to school officials. In addition, a dozen long-time drivers have retired recently.

School officials continue to ramp up recruitment efforts through advertising, social media and job fairs. They currently have 27 drivers in training, in Alberton, Summerside and Charlottetown. They're hosting a job fair Nov. 6 in Stratford, with another in Summerside at a later date.

Wages part of negotiations

Wages are negotiated with the union as part of its collective agreement.

"I think there's a direct correlation between wages and attractiveness to any position," said Gillis. "Any process to change that would have to be negotiated."

Coughlin has been driving a school bus for more than 18 years. He said the labour shortage is creating stress among drivers. 

As the school year continues to roll along, he said he will try to stay healthy to avoid unexpected sick days — so he doesn't have to call a substitute.

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