The Minnesota Legislature is considering options to solve the shortage of bus drivers in our state. The bills that are on the table range from increasing the number of testers to allowing applicants to drive without a full background check.
Not only do these proposals not solve the problem, they could put our students at harm.
Being a school bus driver is more than shuttling children back and forth to school. As mediators, listeners and mentors, we make a difference in students’ lives. Our kids know us – and at the beginning of the school year after a long summer, they love seeing that they have the same school bus driver. It helps with stability in their lives.
Unfortunately, most of our students in Minnesota have to adjust to a new driver every year. The combination of irregular hours, low wages and the denial of unemployment insurance in the summer makes it hard for drivers to stay in the industry – even though they love the job.
In fact, there is such a significant turnover of school bus drivers that everyone from custodians to clerical staff to administrators are prepared to get behind the wheel when drivers are sick. Last fall, one school district even had to cancel school when the bus driver was out.
The problem should be addressed with improved job compensation and working conditions, starting with unemployment insurance.
Bus drivers and other school support staff – custodians, paraprofessionals, food service workers – are the only seasonal workers not eligible for unemployment insurance during the summer when there is no work.
Being excluded from unemployment benefits creates serious financial hardship. Our families are seriously affected as we juggle rent, food, utilities and other basic expenses during the difficult summer months. Many of us earn less than $15,000 annually.
Hard to find summer work
Being a single person asking for assistance is like standing on an intersection begging for dollars and change. We get looked down on and denied. Most companies don’t want to hire workers just for three months. If drivers can find summer work, its hourly part-time positions with very low wages.
Bus drivers are not paid during school holidays or for teachers’ days. We average about 175 days a year, and many drivers only have 5-6 hours a day. Since the hours are so irregular, it is hard to get another part-time job. That leaves drivers who care about their jobs and students at or near the poverty level – and struggling to pay rent and get by in the summer months.
To really solve our current problem, the Legislature should correct the inequity in our state’s current unemployment insurance system to ensure that school workers can receive the benefits we deserve. Allowing school support staff access to unemployment insurance during summer months, and adding more bus monitors to increase safety of both students and drivers, would help attract and retain drivers.
Mae Flowers is a school bus driver in Eden Prairie.