Usually it takes a few years for national trends to reach Athens County. But the county is experiencing one trend that's been plaguing cities nationwide: a shortage of bus drivers.
Athens City Schools, the Beacon School and Athens Public Transit are all struggling to maintain routes with not enough drivers. APT has cut service and Athens schools are closed because it's short seven drivers through attrition, injury and the coronavirus.
The shortage of CDL drivers seeking jobs other than bus driving is part of a national trend. In a March study, nearly 80% of school districts that responded were having trouble finding enough bus drivers, the Associated Press reported.
Jim Glimco, spokesperson for the central division of The International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, put the shortage of commercial drivers license (CDL) laborers bluntly.
“It’s a ---show – you can quote me on that one,” Glimco said.
Cutting, closing and "patching things together"
On Monday, Athens Public Transit cut weekend service and suspended Line 5 — which runs between Athens and The Plains — following weeks of schedule changes for various lines. The reason for the spotty service, Carolyn Conley, HAPCAP director of transportation said, is the lack of bus drivers.
HAPCAP had been trying to operate as close to full capacity as they could, Conley said. But ultimately, she had to make the decision to slash services.
“Which is something I don't take lightly or do easily, but if you don't have someone to run the route, there isn't much you can do,” Conley said.
Similarly, Athens City School District on Monday announced that its schools would remain closed until after Labor Day because the coronavirus continued to spread among a transportation staff that already had just enough drivers to keep going on a good day.
Two ACSD drivers resigned right before the school year started, said Athens City Schools Superintendent Tom Gibbs, so the staff was already short. Now five drivers are out with coronavirus or injuries.
For the two days that Athens schools were in session, administrators operated the bus radios and Athens High School Principal Chad Springer, who has a van certification, drove a large van on a smaller route, Gibbs said. Anyone on the transportation staff with the certification was put behind the wheel of a bus.
“Literally everyone in the transportation office was on the road,” Gibbs said.
Kevin Davis, superintendent at The Athens County Board of Developmental Disabilities Beacon School, said the issue is “nearing a crisis point.”
The Beacon School runs four to six routes around the county, he said. For about the past year, Beacon has been struggling to recruit new drivers for about a year, Davis said, and has been “patching things together” with four bus routes and two van routes.
He pointed to the statewide shortage of drivers.
“We don't see an end in sight to it either — there isn't going to be a group of people showing up next week wanting to be bus drivers,” Davis said.
Conley, Gibbs and Davis all say, "We're hiring."
“We are constantly accepting applications,” Gibbs said. “It tends to be a high-turnover position.”
But the Teamsters' Glimco says employers need to make bus driver positions worth workers’ time.
“You gotta make it worthwhile," he said. "A lot of companies have raised wages but that's not enough to do what you need to do.”
HAPCAP has increased pay for drivers, to $13.46 an hour for Class C CDL drivers and $14.42 an hour for Class B CDL drivers, Conley said. The organization also has a "robust" fringe benefits package, she said.
“Increased wages is something I worked hard to see through because (employees) deserve it, but also for recruitment purposes,” Conley said.
Gibbs said many school bus drivers either seek the job for supplemental income, or because they want the benefits package and are seeking to transfer into another, full-time position such as in custodial work with ACSD.
“The benefits are great, the hourly rate — is not bad, it's just not a living wage,” Gibbs said.
And then there's the effect of the coronavirus. Conley said not as many people are pursuing CDL certification, and fewer are seeking to work as bus drivers during the pandemic.
“I think COVID is scary and the idea of being out there in the public, day in, day out, may be intimidating to people and I get it,” Conley said.
Serving those who need it
When Athens Transit had to keep changing operating hours for different lines, Conley said, the level of service to those who rely on public transportation suffered. Suspending service altogether, she said, allows HAPCAP and Athens Transit to have consistent service.
“I want to be done with the lack of reliability,” Conley said. “You shouldn't have to do research every morning to see if (transit) is available for you.”
She also said HAPCAP was placing more emphasis on on-demand transit, which functions as a sort of taxi service for a nominal fee.
Gibbs said the lack of available drivers creates an equity problem for those who have no other transportation to school.
“We talk a lot about equity, and when you start not providing bussing to students who nerd busing it creates great inequity between students who can get to school and students who can’t,” Gibbs said.
Davis said The Beacon School appreciates all its drivers who work with the children.
“When you're with us, you're more than a bus driver — you're driving a bus, you're also taking care of people who have significant needs and challenges,” Davis said. “We’re also faced with the task of finding drivers who have a passion for serving the students we work with.”