NYC school bus workers union warns of driver shortage for upcoming school year

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A shortage of drivers for New York City’s school buses could gum up the works as the first day of school approaches.

Michael Cordiello, the president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, which represents about half of the drivers, matrons and mechanics who operate the city’s sprawling yellow bus system, said the worker shortages that have plagued school bus systems across the country are also hitting the city.

“There was a shortage before COVID. COVID made it worse, there’s no doubt about it,” Cordiello told The Daily News. “Everybody’s looking for workers.”

Cordiello said retirements have spiked since the start of the pandemic while hiring has stood still.

The union chief said that the bus companies where his members work saw 277 retirements in 2019 while hiring roughly 800 new workers. Retirements jumped to 350 in 2020 while new hires sunk to about 400.

This year, for the first time, retirements are outpacing new hires, with 244 retirements this year to date and only 220 new hires, Cordiello said.

The Education Department denied any widespread shortages, noting that Cordiello’s union represents half of the roughly 16,000 school bus workers citywide.

“We’re not currently concerned about bus staffing, thanks in part to the city’s fair compensation and generous benefits,” said DOE spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon. “Safe transportation for our kids to and from school is crucial, and we will continue to work with our labor partners to support their staffing efforts.”

School districts around the country are struggling with school bus worker shortages as drivers lost work during the pandemic or shifted to higher-paying jobs at companies like UPS and FedEx, the Washington Post reported. Some districts are even delaying the start of school because of the shortfalls.

Cordiello blamed some of the shortage on the city’s failure to keep up “with the increase in wages” in other professions, noting it’s been decades since school bus workers had salary parity with MTA workers.

The city’s sprawling yellow bus system typically ferries about 150,000 students to and from school each day — many of them significantly disabled — and is operated by a patchwork of private providers who are slated to receive more than $1.4 billion in funding this year.

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Representatives for several bus companies declined to comment on staffing levels.

The first days of school bus service are typically chaotic, with delayed buses and scrambled assignments, and this year’s shortage could pose additional problems, Cordiello said.

“Drivers are doing extra work to make sure all the kids get to school,” Cordiello said. “But at some point, you can only do so much work in the day.”