Anibal Nieves wanted to make a career out of driving a school bus. Instead, he quit the gig just six months in — after finding a full-time job with better benefits.
Nieves' former profession has been under reexamination in recent months on Long Island because of what school officials are calling an "unprecedented" shortage of workers. Current and former drivers point to low pay, insufficient benefits and limited hours spread over split shifts as reasons for the shortage.
The labor shortfall existed before COVID-19 but was made worse by the pandemic. Transportation officials said the issue isn't likely to be resolved any time soon.
"I was thinking about doing that long term. I was also being looked at to be a trainer for the bus company," said Nieves, 35, of Howard Beach in Queens, who drove for bus contractor Huntington Coach in 2018. "I got a better opportunity. … I went to the plumbers union."
Locally, and in some other states, the yellow bus has been running late or not at all to start this school year.
What to know
A widespread school bus driver shortage worsened by the pandemic has raised alarms as parents across Long Island report bus delays, and in some instances, no-shows.
Bus contractors and school districts have ramped up recruiting, but no immediate relief appears in sight.
Some are calling for structural changes to address long-standing problems they said the industry faced before COVID-19 arrived: attracting and retaining drivers.
Massachusetts has activated the state’s National Guard to drive students. Districts in Baltimore and Philadelphia are paying parents hundreds of dollars a month to drive their children to school. In Long Beach, district officials are asking parents to drive their children to school in anticipation of the driver shortage worsening in colder months.
The severity of the shortage drew attention in September when Huntington schools told parents their children soon might not have a ride because the contractor, Huntington Coach, didn’t have enough drivers. The district does not have an in-house fleet and contracts more than 90% of its student transportation to Huntington Coach.
The district deferred Newsday's inquiry on why Huntington was the only district affected, when Huntington Coach serves other districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties, to the company. Huntington Coach did not respond to a request for comment.
Bus service in Huntington later fully resumed.
'More severe and much more widespread'
Corey Muirhead, past president of the New York School Bus Contractors Association, estimated that 30% of Long Island’s 124 school districts run their own buses and the rest largely rely on about a dozen private companies.
Even for those with an in-house fleet, almost all use contractors for certain routes, including out-of-district runs for students attending private schools, charters for sports, and trips for students with special needs.
The number of drivers employed by private contractors in New York dropped from 43,500 in April 2019 to 15,400 a year later, during the height of the pandemic, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. By April this year, employment bounced back to 27,100, but only accounting for 62% of what it was two years earlier.
"It's much more severe and much more widespread," said Brian Cechnicki, executive director of Albany-based Association of School Business Officials of New York. "It's literally every school district in the state having this problem."
Muirhead estimated that Island schools are 15% short of their typical 5,000 drivers. The degree varies by districts and companies.
Bryan Velez, supervisor of transportation in the West Babylon school district, said his driver staff used to be about 60. Now it’s 45.
"It's very stressful to our existing staff," Velez said. "I try to give people pep talks. I'll send motivational messages each week. … I just try to lift their spirits as much as possible and let them know that this is not going to be permanent."
Many drivers who were laid off last year, during the months when schools switched to remote learning, did not come back, industry representatives said. Others decided to retire or not return this fall due to COVID-19 concerns. More than half of the driver workforce is 55 or older, a group more vulnerable to the virus.
These days, drivers have the added responsibilities to enforce a mask mandate, frequently sanitize the bus and complete more paperwork as part of protocols.
"We had several good drivers this year that just said: ‘You know what, I'm just not going to do this. It’s too much responsibility and too much stress to continue,’ " said Debra Hagan, president of Transport Workers Union Local 252 in Islandia.
Some want job to be full time
Even before the pandemic exacerbated the shortage, union leaders and former drivers said the job had become too demanding and without a comparable compensation.
"What's missing from this industry is that you really can't make a career out of it," said Michael Cordiello, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181-1061, representing nearly 3,000 bus drivers and attendants on the Island. "Some of the young people that are coming in want it to be a full-time job."
That includes Nieves, who left Huntington Coach because of low pay and unstructured hours. Now training to become a deputy sheriff at the New York City Department of Finance, Nieves recalled working 30 hours a week at $19 an hour.
"I always was interested in transporting [students], I guess having kids myself. It was something that always intrigued me," the father of five said. "When I had the opportunity, I gave it a shot."
And it remained just that — a shot.
The plumber job came with better long-term benefits and guaranteed eight hours daily with no shift gaps that left him with hours of little to do.
The pay for drivers varies. The national average is about $21 an hour this year, roughly the same for beginning drivers on the Island, according to union leaders.
The problem is drivers don’t get guaranteed eight hours of work daily, which in some cases also means they don’t get health insurance coverage.
Those driving 25 hours a week, for example, are part-time workers, and their employers aren’t required to provide health insurance. Some districts offer health benefits for part-time workers, but it's a local decision, said David Christopher, executive director of the New York Association for Pupil Transportation.
Drivers employed by school districts are eligible for the New York State pension system but still have to work 30 or more hours to be guaranteed health care coverage if their employer has more than 50 full-time workers.
Jakki Scholl, 51, of Mount Sinai, who drove a bus for We Transport until June to work in Cordiello’s office, said many drivers have a second job working in grocery stores or hospitals "because they can't afford what they're making."
Then come companies such as Amazon, which is adding warehouses across the Island, with jobs to fill.
Amazon has said it would recruit 1,800 seasonal and 1,500 permanent workers in New York City and on the Island, with starting pay averaging $18 per hour.
"If you have a [commercial driver's] license, there's so many opportunities for you," Cordiello said. "Amazon is booming. They will start you with a good rate of pay. You don't have to deal with parents, children and schools. You're transporting boxes of goods. They don't talk back to you."
The day starts as early as 3:30 a.m.
Despite the stress that comes with dealing with occasional unruly students or unhappy parents, Cordiello and others said many are attracted to the field because it’s rewarding to work with children.
Anthony Napolitano, 71, of Commack, used to decorate his bus during the holiday season.
"Christmas stuff. Halloween stuff. They loved it," said Napolitano, who drove for Huntington Coach for four years, retiring in 2015 for health reasons. "Some of them would give me pictures and drawings and I would hang them on the bus. … They would be so proud it was on the bus."
Napolitano said some of his favorite memories came from his interactions with the students.
"You were a parent away from their home. You were the caretaker," Napolitano said. "It was gold."
What Napolitano also didn’t forget was the stress. "You could be fired in so many different ways," he said.
A driver would get in serious trouble if a child — who may be sleeping — was left on the bus or let off at an unscheduled stop, he said. Often, he was the only adult onboard to drive and supervise a dozen children during a ride. During winter months, his fingers would be freezing as he waited for the bus to warm up before his morning runs.
"It was something I never imagined," Napolitano said. "Nobody knows how hard that job is."
Phil Greco wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to have coffee, prepare breakfast and iron his uniform before arriving at the yard in a East Setauket lot by 5:30 a.m. When he gets on the bus, he looks under the seats, checks the lights and gets ready for his first run at 5:58 a.m.
He has three runs for Three Village Central School District in the morning. Each takes about 20 minutes.
In between, he uses the breaks to walk the bus to make sure no sleeping children are left behind and to sanitize the bus. For the longer 45-minute break between his second and third run, he checks his tires and other bus parts again. Then he eats his breakfast, usually a small egg sandwich that he prepared at home.
Greco finishes his morning runs around 10:15 a.m. and drives 25 minutes home to Rocky Point. He does errands or exercises before heading back to the yard at 1 p.m. for his two afternoon runs.
He’s done by 4:15 p.m., and goes to sleep at 9:30 on most nights.
Greco, who’s in his 60s, said the six-hour daily schedule works for him because he was looking for a part-time job to slow down after retiring in the late 1990s from his job as a clothes designer.
"In that business, you are running 100 miles an hour," he said. "As you get older, you just can’t run at that speed anymore."
While Greco does not sign up for late runs for after-school activities, he knows others do.
Scholl, who drove for 21 years, said some drivers she knew are at the yard by 5:30 a.m. and don’t leave until 10 p.m. after driving charters for sports, though they have breaks in between.
"You go to work in the dark; you come home in the dark," she said. "It's too long of a day."
Drivers have strict requirements
Christopher said employers should work to retain drivers such as Greco, a retiree who enjoys the part-time schedule, and Nieves, who was looking for full-time work.
"Drivers come to the business for many different reasons," he said. "School districts and contract operations need to look at who they're hiring and find out why they're there and try to accommodate them."
To cope with the driver shortage, school districts have combined routes, and many private companies are offering sign-on bonuses.
On average, industry officials said it takes six to eight weeks to train a driver.
A driver must pass written and road tests to obtain a commercial driver's license. They also need to pass a background check and an annual medical exam.
Every two years, a physical performance test is due. Drivers are also subject to random drug and alcohol testing after passing the initial testing before driving students.
The state requires bus drivers to report any traffic conviction of moving violations, including when it involves their personal vehicle, to their employer, which in turn must file a report on each driver every year to the motor vehicles department.
Christopher estimated the startup cost to be around $2,500, including the license fees, training and the time a new driver takes for that training. Some companies and districts pick up that cost for the driver.
Cechnicki’s association is advocating for the state to offer reimbursement to broaden health insurance coverage for drivers and provide financial aid to districts for the position of driver’s assistants.
"Providing reimbursement for that expense will help get more districts to consider adding those personnel," Cechnicki said of the aides position. "That will mean people are less resistant to becoming bus drivers because now they don't have to be the disciplinarian. They can just focus on the road."
The shortage wouldn’t be fixed overnight, but some in the industry said they have seen some promising signs.
John Corrado, president of Suffolk Transportation Service, which buses students in 19 Suffolk districts and employs Greco, said there were three times as many applications in early October compared to a month prior.
"It could be like after Christmas before we start to see the real relief that we're looking for," Corrado said. "And that's the beginning. It's not like it's all over."