CHICAGO - With just weeks until the start of a new school year, there is a bus driver shortage.
Bus companies are going to extreme lengths to recruit new drivers.
"It's typically normal for us to go into September maybe needing a handful of drivers, but now, this September, we're going to go in needing a couple of handful of drivers," said Julius Ceasar, the director of recruiting for Cook Illinois Corporation.
The company works with bus companies throughout the area to transport more than 200,000 students to Cook County schools.
Last month, American School Bus, a provider that is contracted by Cook Illinois Corp., held a job fair in Orland Park to recruit new drivers. Only two applicants showed up.
"I anticipated it to be honest. I wish it wasn't," said Timothy Poole, an operations manager with American School Bus.
He says it’s never been this hard to recruit new drivers so close to the start of the new school year.
"It is a severe shortage of school bus drivers and really the only thing that comes to mind with this is, these kids suffered so much with the pandemic," Poole said.
Last year when schools closed and learning became remote, bus drivers were furloughed. Now, Ceasar says many don’t want to come back because they are able to collect enhanced unemployment benefits.
"We had a lot of people on furlough and when they extended it to September the 6th for the payments, a lot of them are not coming back and probably won't come back until then," Ceasar said.
To get people back in the driver’s seat, Cook Illinois Corp. is offering extreme incentives. Pay has been increased to $18 dollars an hour. Current employees can also get up to $1,000 and other prizes for referring new employees.
In addition, the company pays for driver training and licensing.
However, it’s not enough.
"Desperation is there. It's there so much, we're going to our customers and saying we're going to be running routes late," said Poole.
He says the bus companies are making contingency plans with school districts. This includes a single bus driver servicing three routes and staggered start times so students can arrive at school in stages.
"Being a school bus driver, it's one of the most rewarding jobs at the end of the day, because you're the first person that kid sees and the last person that kid sees," said Poole.
Cook Illinois Corp. is also offering health care to drivers, even though it's a part-time job.
For more information, go to www.cookillinois.com.