The pandemic hit particularly hard because many school bus drivers were retirees.
A lack of school bus drivers in Ottawa, exacerbated by the pandemic, is leaving hundreds of students without a lift to class.
Vicky Kyriaco, general manager of the Ottawa Student Transportation Association, said Wednesday the organization would need to hire dozens of drivers to service all school bus routes for the start of the school year.
“We’re definitely having a severe driver shortage,” she said. “We’re at about 65 drivers short now, and that is resulting in numerous kids not having transportation for the school year.”
The driver shortage has been ongoing for several years, Kyriaco said, but every year she and her colleagues at the OSTA always managed to secure transportation for students. Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, though, the problem has worsened.
“At least we could transport kids to school. It was not always the same driver, and sometimes there were delays,” she said, “but, with COVID, it’s just so much worse because we just don’t have the bodies anymore. They’re just not there to drive the bus.”
The pandemic hit particularly hard because many school bus drivers were retirees. Last year, many of them did not want to drive, fearing the risk of infection on a bus filled with children. This year, Kyriaco she sees the same effect, but there are also labour shortages across many industries and it is challenging to get some drivers back behind the wheel because they have found work elsewhere, often for higher pay or more hours.
“There isn’t an influx of interested people because it’s a part-time job,” Kyriaco said. “So now there’s a lot of competition in our labour market, here in Ottawa especially, where everyone’s clamouring for people, and so compensation comes into play: what kind of benefits do you have, what are the working conditions. People have a lot more options now and being a bus driver is not one that would be considered top of the list for a career move.”
The average hourly wage for a school bus driver in Ottawa is $18 per hour, according to the employment website glassdoor. Drivers typically work four to five hours per day, Kyriaco said, although they are split into two blocks in the morning and evening, which makes it a difficult sell for many as a part-time job. Wages are generally increasing in the Ottawa area, she added.
The OTSA is dedicating resources to advertising in the hopes of attracting more drivers before the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Ottawa Catholic School Board — the two boards serviced by OTSA — begin classes next week. If prospective candidates want to apply, they can do so through the OSTA website at ottawaschoolbus.ca/drivers.
Kyriaco also encouraged parents to regularly check the OSTA website for updates. It shows up to date listings of route cancellations due to the lack of drivers. On Wednesday it showed more than 20 school routes that were completely unserviced by school bus transport and a number of other routes that would only be run in the morning or afternoon. Parents will have to find their children alternative ways to school when routes are cancelled.