Ontario facing school bus driver shortage as students head back to school next week

Ontario is facing a school bus driver shortage as students are set to head back to school next week.

School Bus Ontario is calling on the Ford government to “fix the flawed” busing contract bid system as the province is currently facing a shortfall of hundreds of operators.

The group says bus contracts are awarded to operators that put in the lowest bids which suppresses driver pay and in turn results in high turnover rates.

“This has been going on for 10 years. The government has not moved to fix this problem at all, awarding contracts to the lowest possible bidder and driver wages are suppressed at $16 to $20 an hour on average in Ontario, and that's not enough to attract drivers anymore,” Nancy Daigneault, executive director of School Bus Ontario told CP24 on Thursday.

Daigneault said parents should expect school bus delays and cancellations across Ontario, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton, Ottawa, Peterborough and northern Ontario.

“Check the [school board] websites because there are going to be delays, we just don't have the driver pool that we used to and it's going to take years to build it up again,” she said.

The group argues that bus operators are not fairly compensated for the amount of responsibility they have and are paid much less compared to public transit drivers.

Daigneault also noted that several bus drivers are seniors who have been putting themselves at risk while working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They have a lot more responsibility, a lot more training, they have to be trained in CPR, first aid, epi pen, racial sensitivity training, all sorts of different training. It's a part-time, split-shift job, and it's not as attractive as it used to be for retirees,” Daigneault said.

“These are frontline workers, they put their lives on the line last year during the pandemic, when there were no vaccines available. We need to reward them properly,” she added.

School Bus Ontario has proposed different ideas to rework the bidding system, including getting a third party to set the wages and rates for the local industries based on economic conditions.

Daigneault said the group has been calling for change for the past 10 years but has yet to see any action from the government.

“We've put forth these suggestions, time and time again… And here we are facing a perfect storm with back to school, low driver wages, bad contracts, and a system that just is not sustainable.”

CP24 has reached out to the Ministry of Education for comment but has yet to receive a response.