Officials in Baltimore and Howard counties announced plans Tuesday for financial incentives to retain bus drivers and hire new ones in hopes of stymying severe driver shortages across the region.
Baltimore County school system will offer a range of bonuses and increased wages for the drivers who transport more than 85,000 students on more than 800 routes to and from schools each day. And Baltimore County has pledged to cover various out-of-pocket expenses for driver applicants that can be barriers to employment, officials announced during a news conference Tuesday.
“We know that getting our students to school safely and efficiently is one of our most sacred responsibilities,” said Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. during the news conference.
In Howard County, County Executive Calvin Ball released a statement via video Tuesday afternoon explaining the county is committing $2 million of what it receives from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan to retention bonuses for existing bus drivers and attendants, along with signing bonuses to attract new hires.
“Our bus drivers should be fairly compensated for their important work that is provided to our children,” said Ball, a Democrat.
School systems across the country are facing a shortage of bus drivers, placing a burden on students’ families as well as existing employees who are picking up additional driving routes.
In Baltimore City, driver shortages hampered the first day of the fall semester, leaving several hundred students stranded.
Ball said about 100 bus routes were impacted by interruptions to school bus services in Howard County on Monday, following warnings from leaders of bus driver call-outs.
Almost 100 bus driver vacancies have hindered services in Howard County since the beginning of the school year, Ball said. Short staffed, the remaining drivers and attendants have been forced into additional bus routes at “nontraditional times,” meaning some families have had to send their children to school earlier than usual or had them return late.
The shortages also require school staff to wait later to look after the students until a bus picks them up, he said.
In Baltimore County, students as young as 4 have been left waiting at their stops for drivers, Olszewski said.
Baltimore County government officials will cover the cost of pre-employment background checks, fingerprinting, physical exams, mandatory drug testing and, in some cases, sleep apnea tests for commercial drivers license holders, he said. Physical exam and drug testing fees can range from $160 to $220, and sleep apnea testing costs an average of $1,151 per test, according to a county news release.
County officials also expanded a list of eligible medical providers to provide pre-employment physicals in an effort to reduce a backlog that caused long wait times for applicants seeking a physical, the release states.
Superintendent Darryl Williams said the school system will invest $5.2 million, using federal funds from the American Rescue Plan, to cover financial incentives through the remainder of the school year. The incentives include $50 monthly rewards for on-time attendance, $250 sign-on bonuses, $250 employee referral incentives and $1,000 retention bonuses paid in December and June. The system will also offer more flexible time off and a $2 per hour shift differential for drivers who take on additional routes through the remainder of the school year.
Baltimore County school board chairwoman Makeda Scott said the board was committed to providing the funding needed to address bus driver shortages. Williams was expected to present more details on the incentives during the school board meeting Tuesday evening.
A representative of the union for Baltimore County school bus drivers applauded the funding pledges during the news conference.
“This is a direction moving in the right way,” said Bryan Epps, president of the AFSCME Local 434. “This is a win for all of AFSCME employees.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Alex Mann contributed to this article.