By Kirk Winter
The Trillium Lakelands District School Board created a social media firestorm Oct. 1 by posting a message on Facebook about bus transportation for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.
“Due to the current shortage of qualified school bus drivers, any day we could be without a driver for your child’s bus route,” the message reads. “It is important to make alternate transportation arrangements to get your child to and from school in the event of a cancellation.”
Hundreds of outraged parents responded, detailing circumstances of families with no car or no car at home during school hours; of shift workers who would not be available for unscheduled pickups; or children who might try to walk significant distances rather than wait for parents, potentially putting themselves in danger.
The posting comes after public statements by communications officer, Sinead Fegan, and superintendent of business, Tim Ellis, who had speculated about a shortage of school bus drivers and what impact it might have on the transportation system in mid-September.
As early as 2016, Unifor, which represents most of the unionized bus drivers in Ontario, went on record calling the way school boards procure transportation as “deeply flawed” and “a race to the bottom.”
Unifor argues that the request for proposals process leads to constant instability and contract flipping as school bus companies try to outbid each other. This has led to a precarious industry offering few rewards for drivers and little stability for parents, they say.
The pandemic has only worsened the working conditions for drivers as they are now expected to sanitize buses between runs. Unifor says that pay as “miserly” as $60 a day, with no pay for professional activity days or school holidays, is not nearly enough for often elderly drivers to risk exposure to the COVID-19 virus on a daily basis.
Local parents and drivers have also taken to social media to voice their concerns about buses travelling at pre-pandemic capacities.
“Our buses are loaded as they normally would be prior to COVID-19,” Fegan told The Highlander via e-mail.
Debbie Montgomery, president of Unifor Local 4268 and a bus driver for more than three decades said, “The Ontario government has also failed to make driver retention bonus cheques available to qualified school bus drivers from 2019. The payment is given to drivers with near perfect attendance as a payout of $1,000 for the period of September 2019 through December 2019 with payment due March 2020,” she said.
“The next payment period which ran from January 2020 thru to June 2020 was interrupted when schools closed in March. The program administrators have not communicated to the drivers if they will receive pay for either of these periods,” Montgomery said.
Unifor said many drivers rely on the Driver Retention Program to help make ends meet. Without those twice a year bonus payments, they say more drivers have left the industry, contributing to the shortage of school bus drivers, only made worse by the onset of a pandemic.