The 'catch-22' that keeps school bus driver wages low

School bus operators vying for competitive provincial contracts means there's little left over revenue to pass onto drivers.

Operators competing for provincial contracts drives pay down, discouraging new recruits

A lot with several school buses in it.
All aboard? A former school bus driver says intense responsibility and low wages mean less people are drawn to try out the job. (Kate Rutherford/CBC)

Split shifts. Tough working conditions. Wages that barely hit higher than minimum wage.

Whatever you pin it on, school boards, school bus operators, and former drivers agree: it's hard to convince people to become school bus drivers.

"It's minimum wage with a lot of responsibility," said Phyllis Wells, who drove a school bus in Brampton and Toronto for 12 years, in an interview on Metro Morning. "There's no respect for the drivers."

A shortage of drivers over the summer had Toronto school boards working to put contingency plans in place before the new school year began, assuring parents all the while that it would be nothing like 2016's crisis, which left thousands of students scrambling to get to class.

Though rosters of backup drivers have been arranged this year, Wells believes that only one thing will attract and retain new drivers in the industry long-term: "definitely salary."

What explains the low wages?  

School bus driver pay, which Ontario School Bus Association (OSBA) says hovers around $12 to $16 an hour, is set as the result of negotiations between school bus operators and consortia that represent school boards.

Operators bid on sought-after school board contracts in a competitive procurement process that was introduced province-wide in the last decade.

"It's forced operators to kind of submit their lowest possible price, which has driven prices to rock bottom where we are at today," explained Mark Begg, president of the OSBA.

Kevin Hodgkinson, the general manager of the consortium responsible for bussing students from the Toronto District School Board and the Toronto Catholic District School Board, sees the issue somewhat differently.

"They're the ones that are submitting these bids," he said of the operators. "They can put in a higher bid."

But Hodgkinson acknowledged that the business reality precludes any major increases: "the question is, would they still have business if they raised it too much? So it's a little bit of a catch-22," he said.

Association says minimum wage hike could hurt, not help

The Ontario government's upcoming minimum wage hike promises a silver lining by bringing driver wages up, but the OSBA argues that it will hurt the industry as a whole.

That's because school bus contacts are set years in advance, locking in rates for five to ten years at a time, meaning operators won't get any more money from school boards despite the fact that they now have to pay their staff more.  

"Other industries... can just adjust their price on the product they're selling," said Begg. "There was no way for us to build in a 30 per cent cost increase in wages like this with no notice."

He said that the resulting shortfall could lead to a "mess" in which operators shut down or cut drivers.

Responding to the OSBA's demand that the province provide more funding, a statement from Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said that "we will work together to address the challenges [operators] may face."

She also said that her ministry is planning a "broad engagement to renew the vision for student transportation" this fall.

Solutions must involve "all parties"

Debbie Montgomery, president of a Unifor Local 4268, which represents 1200 school bus drivers in the GTA, said the only path forward is for both the government and the operators to admit their roles in keeping wages low.

Unifor's Dennie Montgomery spoke with reporters last month, arguing that student transportation issues would persist until the root cause - driver shortages - were addressed. (Unifor Canada/Twitter)

"I think it involves all parties. Obviously you need the funding, and that's where the government steps up. And the operators… stop talking out of both sides of your mouth. You do control the working conditions to a point."

She understands why the OSBA is pushing for more funding, but called any cash infusion a "band aid" put over the "gaping wound" that is low wages and poor job conditions.

She hopes that their campaign, called "Get Our Kids to School," draws attention to what she feels is a more pressing issue: the huge disparity between what drivers are asked to do and how much they are paid.

"You don't have people wanting to drive a school bus," she told CBC Toronto. "And you know what the reasons are for it."