Bus driver shortage causing widespread delays, frustrating Seattle parents

SEATTLE -- Nearly a dozen school bus routes in Seattle were delayed Wednesday morning (Oct. 17), leaving some kids running up to two hours late.

It's a problem that has persisted since Seattle Public Schools started this year, and it's frustrating for parents who have to change their schedules at the last-minute to accommodate the widespread delays. The delays are happening in the mornings and afternoons, which means some kids are getting home up to two hours after school ends.

The Seattle Times reported in September that parents are supposed to be notified  about the delays through an automated phone message, but on the first day of school, some parents never got the notification because of a glitch in the messaging system.

First Student, the company Seattle Public Schools contracts with for school bus services, admits that their "level of service has not been what the community expects of us, nor what we expect of ourselves."

The company attributes the growing problem to a nationwide bus driver shortage, particularly, a shortage of qualified people with a commercial driver's license.  The problem, First Student says, is more serious in cities like Seattle, "where the economy is robust and unemployment is low."

"A few years ago, an industry survey reflected that 90% of school districts across the country reported facing a driver shortage. Since the survey came out, the issue has likely gotten worse. And certainly, we’re not immune to it," said Chris Kemper, senior director of corporate communications for First Student.

The company recruits and hires year-round in an effort to combat the shortage. Kemper said First Student has job fairs every Wednesday at 7739 1st Ave. South in Seattle.

The company is also offering a $2,000 sign-on bonus, along with a retirement plan, medical, sick pay and holiday pay.

"We are actively training and adding more drivers to our staff," Kemper said.

In September, there were more than 50 drivers in varying stages of First Student's training program.

"We are working in partnership with the district to resolve this issue," Kemper said.

Meanwhile, parents will have to rely on automated messages and the school district's website for updates. Parents told The Times that they've been unable to reach the school district by phone to discuss the issue.