November 21, 2023

Local 2040 members take bus driver shortage into their own hands

As in so many other workplaces, the school bus drivers of AFSCME Local 2040 at the East Moline School District were faced with mounting staff shortages resulting from the pandemic.

When students returned to school in 2021, retirements and resignations forced bus drivers to double, sometimes even triple, the number of students picked up by a single bus.

“The buses would get so full that we couldn’t pick any more kids up,” said Ann Torres, a bus driver in East Moline for 13 years. “We’d have to go back for them. That’s strenuous for everybody—the families, the students, the drivers and the school. It was a struggle.”

So Local 2040 spearheaded a novel effort: Their union would develop and run a program that taught people how to drive a bus and pass their CDL exam—and make sure they had a job with the district once they passed.

To top it off, the new trainees would be hired immediately as bus monitors so they could learn the ropes of managing the bus and the students while going through classroom instruction.

Ray Graham, a transportation co-lead and Local 2040’s vice president, said that the effort was conceived of and driven by the union, but was bolstered by strong support from management, who agreed that they needed to pull out all the stops to recruit more drivers—including offering up to thousands of dollars in recruitment and retention bonuses for both new drivers and any current driver who referred them.

The union launched the program in 2021, right as students started to return to school after the pandemic hiatus.

CDL classes can be expensive, sometimes costing thousands of dollars to just get the necessary experience to even take the test. In the program Local 2040 initiated, it costs nothing.

“We come in with the mindset that we are a service to our community, and we tried to impart that on the people in the classes,” said Torres, who also serves as one of three classroom instructors.

It was critical that the program be taught by the school bus drivers in Local 2040 rather than outside instructors, Graham said. They know the ropes better than anyone else, and they know exactly what the new drivers need to be taught.

“Driving a school bus is not easy and people are intimidated by it,” Graham said. “It seems to help having an actual bus driver doing the teaching. It makes people feel comfortable.”

The program has been a hit. Not only do all 34 of the district’s buses have drivers in their seats, they now have enough drivers that some are put on standby duty to pick up routes for any sick drivers. In all, 25 people have graduated from the program.

Local 2040 hopes that other school districts grappling with staffing issues will be inspired by the progress East Moline has made.

Torres’ advice to other local unions that represent school bus drivers?

“First you need to do research about the state’s requirements for CDL drivers, and for school bus drivers specifically,” she said. “Then you need instructors with personality, someone who is flexible and passionate about helping others.”

Related News

There are no related news stories.