After $1 billion from Ontario for student transportation, why does Hamilton still have a school bus shortage?

In late August, weeks before schools reopened across Ontario, the provincial government announced a major new investment in student transportation — a whopping $1 billion in funding that, according to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, marked the “highest investment in transportation in Ontario history.”

The announcement was welcome news for Hamilton’s school boards, which have long been plagued by school bus shortages resulting in cancelled routes and delayed commutes for students. For years, the boards and bus companies have struggled to recruit drivers willing to take students to and from school, and the pandemic has only exacerbated this problem, as older drivers at greater risk of contracting illness opt to stay home or find work elsewhere.

Standing in a colourful elementary classroom in downtown Toronto, Lecce assured the boards the funding would attract new drivers and keep the existing ones.

“When it comes to retaining talent, we’re going to be there for our school boards, as we always have,” he said. “That’s why we’ve put $40 million in new money, which can be used largely for cleaning supplies, but also to provide a few extra bucks to our drivers who are doing additional work. We’re giving latitude to our school boards to do that, and to do whatever it takes to support our drivers and ultimately get our kids to school safely every day.”

The funding didn’t fix Hamilton’s bus driver woes.

By mid-September, the school boards reported a shortage of nearly 80 drivers across the city. More than a dozen routes were routinely cancelled in downtown Hamilton in late September. In October, the boards decided to even out the cancellations by spreading them across the city on a rotating basis.

As of early October, the boards still needed 45 more drivers to operate school buses. Routes are expected to remain cancelled for the rest of the fall semester.

“We’ve taken steps to try and reduce this problem, but it remains a big problem,” said Alex Johnstone, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. “Students are already having disruptions to their school days because of this. It’s further exacerbating the negative impact on students that comes with COVID-19.”

The struggles facing Hamilton’s student transportation are due in part to funding shortages and in part to the nature of the job.

A closer examination of the numbers behind the government’s funding announcements reveals that the money available is less than what it appears to be — and that the incentives being offered are not enough to recruit and retain drivers.

The province pledged $110 million to school boards for a range of expenses concerning school buses: personal protective equipment (PPE), cleaning and disinfectant supplies, more staffing for enhanced cleaning protocols, and support for driver recruitment and retention.

Of that $110 million, Hamilton’s school boards received roughly $867,000. Approximately $714,000 went to the HWDSB, for both cleaning and recruitment purposes, while roughly $153,000 went to Hamilton’s Catholic school board.

The boards pool their funds into one joint organization for student transportation in Hamilton called the Hamilton-Wentworth Student Transportation Services (HWSTS), which is then distributed to partner bus companies.

In early September, the HWSTS introduced a driver recruitment program that offered an additional $18 per day for new drivers and kept an existing retention program offering a $1,000 bonus to drivers twice a year.

But wages for Hamilton’s school bus drivers are among the lowest for transportation workers, according to the HWDSB. Some Hamilton bus companies pay as little as $17.50 an hour, while drivers often work on a part-time basis ensuring fewer hours a week. Bonuses, which are paid out by the province, are subject to income tax.

One Hamilton driver, who The Spectator agreed to keep anonymous to protect their job security, said her wages have gradually decreased in recent years as her bus company changes the way it compensates drivers for hours worked and kilometres travelled. Her year-end bonus of $2,000 amounts to $1,600 after income tax, she said.

“Obviously that’s not enough to attract new drivers,” said Debbie Montgomery, president of Unifor Local 4268, which represents bus drivers in Ontario.



“These are part-time jobs that seem to demand a full-time commitment. When you have a job that requires you to transport kids in the morning and the afternoon, with so much pressure to be on time, it’s hard for drivers to squeeze in all the other part-time work they’re probably doing elsewhere in order to make a living.”

The majority of Ontario drivers are retirees, many of whom are unwilling to compromise their health or safety in the midst of a pandemic.

Montgomery says she’s heard stories from drivers in other boards who say they’re not being compensated for extra responsibilities like cleaning and sanitization. Some bus companies, she said, haven’t compensated their drivers for these responsibilities because they say they haven’t received the funds from the school boards.

“What we need, frankly, is an audit. If all these funds were promised to school boards, let’s make sure they’re being applied where they’re supposed to be applied,” Montgomery said.

In a statement, Lecce’s spokesperson Caitlin Clark reaffirmed the province’s commitment of $110 million in transportation funding for cleaning, PPE, and recruitment and retention programs.

“We will never hesitate from taking further action to protect the health and safety of Ontario’s students and education staff,” Clark wrote.

At the HWDSB, Johnstone credited the driver incentive program for reducing the number of drivers needed from 80 to 45 over the past month.

But even with these incentives, school bus drivers remain the lowest-paid workers within the transportation industry, she said.

“What needs to take place is a review of how much money school bus drivers are being paid across the province in comparison to the rest of the transportation industry. If our drivers’ wages were brought in line with the rest of the transportation industry, you’d see less turnover and more robust driver retention. You’d have enough drivers to meet your needs,” Johnstone said.

“As of now, if someone has the appropriate licence or driving class to drive a school bus, they could just take those same credentials and get a better job with better pay and better hours somewhere else.”

Jacob Lorinc
Jacob Lorinc’s reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. The funding allows him to report on stories about education.

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