District 15 hiring new bus drivers to address shortage, absences

The Palatine Township Elementary School District 15 board has approved plans to hire up 15 more school bus drivers to address a personnel shortage and high absentee rates.

First Student Transportation will provide the drivers at a daily rate of $380 per driver.

Superintendent Laurie Heinz said there is an emergency provision in the Drivers Transportation Union contract allowing the district to hire supplemental drivers for 90 days to cover unassigned routes.

The district previously traveled that route to hire eight drivers on an emergency basis in December. That 90-day period expired on Friday.

“We’re asking for more drivers than we did with our past 90-day (contract), because we have less drivers employed full time in the district,” Deputy Superintendent Claire Kowalczyk told the school board.

The lack of drivers isn’t a new problem. Heinz said that since the COVID pandemic, there has been a nationwide transportation shortage.

“We have been struggling to have enough bus drivers to fully staff our routes,” she added.

To address the shortage, the district has raised driver pay from $21 to $25 an hour and over the past two years has offered attendance bonuses. Drivers also receive insurance and retirement benefits and a paid training program to help obtain a commercial drivers license.

Even with the supplemental drivers hired in December, the district has continued to have late routes every day as a result of absences.

“We’re having several drivers call in sick on a daily basis,” Kowalczyk said, with 10% to 20% of drivers calling in sick daily.

Asked about the absences, Heinz noted that many drivers are older people who retired from other careers.

“But when you’re struggling to have enough drivers to cover all routes, and then you have a group that calls off at a very high rate, it’s compounding our problem,” she said.

As of March 6, the district had 74 active drivers, five in training and three interviews planned with potential hires.

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