Kansas Is Short On School Bus Drivers. One Company And Its Drivers Have An Idea.

By Celia Llopis-Jepsen – Kansas News Service/KCUR

Ray Alvarez remembers the summer he couldn’t make ends meet driving children to school.

“I did qualify for food stamps,” the Olathe school bus driver said. “And yes, I accepted them. My income was so low.”

Alvarez has driven buses off and on for a decade. The financial crisis back then upended his livelihood as a mortgage broker, he says.

He and other drivers urged a panel of state senators recently to consider letting them apply for unemployment during the 70 or so days each year when schools are closed for the summer. The bill stalled in committee.

When Kansas school districts contract with private companies for janitors, food service workers, bus monitors and more, those employees can seek unemployment benefits if they can’t find work during the offseason.

Bus drivers can’t. That’s because of a decades-old carve-out in state law that state officials couldn’t explain. The Kansas Department of Labor checked on 10 nearby states and found eight let privately employed school bus drivers apply for unemployment. Two don’t.

Advocates of dropping the state’s carve-out argue it isn’t fair — nor helpful at a time when bus drivers are in short supply here and nationally, and jobless rates remain exceptionally low.

Mimi Horn has driven for the Lawrence school district for five years and says new employees — who earn less and are less likely to snag a coveted summer school route — struggle especially.

Even during the school year, many drivers can count on only a few hours of work each day, making it hard to cover rent, utilities or other bills.

“Two hours in the morning, two hours in the afternoon.” Drivers, Horn said, “have to not pay something in order to pay the other. Rob Peter to pay Paul.”

Could unemployment benefits help?

Starting pay for Lawrence bus drivers is $15 an hour. Pay at Horn’s level of experience is closer to $16. Raises top out after 13 years at $18.

A Teamsters union representative said the company that Lawrence Public Schools contracts with, First Student, has repeatedly raised pay to entice more applicants.

The question is whether letting drivers apply for unemployment during the summer might help companies hire and retain them in Kansas. (The proposed change wouldn’t affect drivers employed directly by public school districts, who still wouldn’t qualify for reasons related to a federal law.)

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, a Wichita Democrat, urged her fellow senators to think again if they imagine retirees who don’t want a full-time gig will do the driving.

“More and more individuals who are bus drivers transporting our most precious cargo to and from schools — that is their main livelihood,” she said at a legislative hearing. “I’ve seen some of them, in the summertimes, they go to the food banks. They have to rely on food stamps.”

First Student, which lobbied for the bill, says turnover is higher among its drivers in Kansas than in states where its drivers can seek summertime unemployment benefits.

The company brought more than 20 drivers from Minnesota to pick up routes in Wichita that lacked drivers at the start of this school year in August. It raised starting pay to $16 in September.

That helped, a spokeswoman for the company said by email, but “we do believe the bill would further help.” Right now, drivers who quit when school ends often mention the need for summer work.

The unemployment change faces opposition from the Kansas Chamber, the state’s influential business lobby. Taxes paid by businesses fuel the state unemployment fund.

“How do we ensure parity and fairness with the rest of the business community?” Lobbyist Kristi Brown asked senators at a hearing. “When you’re asking a certain group that you anticipate will be a seasonal position to be able to withdraw from that fund, I think there needs to be an expectation for the company that employs them to be paying in appropriately.”

Brown warned against drawing from a once ailing fund that the state fought to make healthy.

The 2008 financial crisis ravaged state unemployment systems nationwide. Kansas — unlike some states — is back on firm ground, the federal government says.

Lawmakers sympathetic to the drivers’ plight argued the state would take that into account.

Companies contribute more or less into the state’s unemployment system based on factors such as the size of their payrolls and how often their employees end up on the benefits.

And when a person seeks benefits, the Kansas Department of Labor considers how they became unemployed, how long they worked, whether they’re actively looking for work or turning down jobs, and other details, before paying out.

What about paying drivers year-round?

A representative for First Student told senators the company spends $3,000 to train each new employee, and more just to find them. For every 10 applicants, only two get hired. Hurdles include earning a specialized license and passing a background check for criminal and traffic violations.

Some senators wondered whether the company should explore other options, such as keeping more drivers on its summer payroll to save on recruiting and training.

“Have you done the cost analysis,” Topeka Republican Eric Rucker asked, “if you just simply paid them for 72 days?”

First Student says letting employees apply for unemployment would be cheaper, even given that the company would need to pay higher taxes into the state’s unemployment fund.

Moreover, First Student, said if it compensated drivers year-round, that would show up in the price it charges districts.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach her on Twitter @Celia_LJ.

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