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Illinois members take the wheel on solving school bus driver shortage

Photo Credit: Getty Images
Illinois members take the wheel on solving school bus driver shortage
By AFSCME Council 31 ·
Tags: Momentum
Illinois members take the wheel on solving school bus driver shortage
Photo credit: AFSCME Council 31

EAST MOLINE, Ill. – As in so many other workplaces, the school bus drivers of AFSCME Local 2040 (Council 31) at the East Moline School District were faced with mounting staff shortages resulting from the pandemic.

When students returned to school in 2021 after the COVID-19 pandemic, 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 that began in 2021. Their union would develop and run a program that taught people how to drive a bus and pass their commercial driver’s license (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, 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. The district agreed that it needed to pull out all the stops to recruit more drivers, including offering up to thousands of dollars in recruitment and retention bonuses for new drivers and any current driver who referred them.

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

“We come in with the mindset that we are a service to our community, and we tried to impart that to 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 Local 2040 school bus drivers 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, but the district also has 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 East Moline’s example.

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.”

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