Stubborn factors causing school bus driver shortage in Ottawa, advocates say

·3 min read
Kids hop on a school bus for the first time in two months in May 2020. The driver sits behind a plastic screen, wearing a mask. (Kimberley Molina/CBC - image credit)
Kids hop on a school bus for the first time in two months in May 2020. The driver sits behind a plastic screen, wearing a mask. (Kimberley Molina/CBC - image credit)

Ottawa is again experiencing a chronic shortage of school bus drivers. This means many routes will be cancelled, leaving thousands of Ottawa students without bus service.

Advocates say this won't change until bus drivers are offered better wages and benefits.

Ottawa Student Transportation Authority (OSTA) general manager Vicky Kyriaco said the city is currently short more than 80 bus drivers.

"We have quite a few cancelled routes and it looks like we're not going to be able to provide service for about 2,000 kids as of the first day of school," she said.

Bus driver positions are part-time, seasonal and do not offer benefits. They pay an average of $18 to $19 an hour in Ottawa, Kyriaco said, compared to an OC Transpo bus driver position that might pay over 30 dollars an hour and include benefits.

"We're going to have to change the way that we compensate bus drivers at some point … and also look at how that compensation is in comparison to other jobs within the labour market," said Kyriaco.

"But … how do we pay for that out of the funding that we receive from the ministry?"

There was a driver shortage last September with similar reasons given, plus the idea that many drivers were older and didn't want to risk driving a bus in the pandemic.

Nancy Daigneault is the executive director of School Bus Ontario, a non-profit advocacy organization for various school bus industry groups.

"The whole system is flawed and it's been flawed for over 10 years," Daigneault said.

She said the current system where operators bid on busing contracts has companies competing to have the lowest bid, which "suppresses driver pay."

When asked if this bid process could be a factor in the staffing shortage, Kyriaco answered "We want to make sure that we have the driver pool available and that we're not destabilizing it [while] still achieving the goals of competitive procurement, which is to make sure that we have value for money."

When reached for comment, Ontario's Education Ministry said there were more factors than pay at play.

"Demographics is a factor — retirees may be pursuing driving as a short-term career which increases turnover rates. [The] part-time nature and split shifts may not appeal to all potential drivers," said ministry representative Grace Lee in an email.

'People cannot survive' on pay

Former school bus driver Olivia Salvatori said that the low pay and lack of benefits are by far the main factors in shortages and was raising these problems before the pandemic.

The split shift makes it difficult to have a second part-time job, said Salvatori, but the pay isn't enough to live off on its own.

Salvatori drove in the Ottawa area for over 15 years and said given that, driving a bus is only really worth it for two types of people: retirees and parents who need a job they can bring their kids to.

Even for them, it's a struggle.

"With the rising cost of housing and the rising cost of everything else, It's an unsustainable job. People cannot survive. Even retirees, they can't survive on the wages given and they need benefits."

Salvatori said that while some people might consider driving a bus "an easy job," it is difficult but worthwhile work that deserves fair pay and job security.

"You're driving a vehicle that's, you know, 13 tons or 20 tons …fully packed with 72 students. It makes it a very stressful job."

Salvatori is now working as a paralegal after leaving her job as a bus driver in September 2020.

"If I had benefits, I probably would have stayed on."

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