Education administrators in a number of US states are struggling to get children to school as they claim their bus drivers are being poached by online shopping monolith Amazon.
Districts including Florida, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey have all stated that the gargantuan e-tailer's seemingly endless hunger for delivery drivers and correspondingly rapacious hiring policies have contributed to a national shortage of school bus drivers, causing some services to be cancelled, with students in affected areas resorting to cars, taxis, and Ubers in order to get into school on time.
One student even used a kayak to travel to school. Twelve-year-old Josh Smith, a student of Summit Middle School in Frisco, Colorado, faced the cancellation of his bus route after Summit School District found itself short of eight drivers and two relief drivers and was forced to axe seven of its 18 bus routes.
The shortages are said to have initially come about when schools were closed last year due to the COVID pandemic, putting school bus drivers unexpectedly out of work.
"Primarily, it was because the jobs were available last year when the schools shut down," Chloe Williams, president of the New Jersey School Bus Contractors Association, said in an interview with Insider. "People were looking for other jobs and found the demand was there... especially in package delivery, everybody was home shopping on Amazon."
Many drivers also stopped working due to health concerns over the COVID virus, since their working conditions mean they are invariably trapped in a confined space with large numbers of unvaccinated children. When students returned to school this term, a number of drivers were subsequently struck down with COVID, with more than 200 said to have died from the virus.
The fact that school bus drivers tend to be older also means that a disproportionate number of workers are leaving the job due to retirement.
In Palm Beach, Florida, the school district is currently 75 drivers short and is directly competing with Amazon to employ drivers after the retailer opened a new 96,000 sq ft warehouse in the town in 2019. The district's efforts to fill these vacancies are hampered by the fact that their hourly pay is 12 per cent lower than what Amazon can offer.
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"What we are seeing is the result of market pressures, plain and simple," said Aaron Dietrich, a representative from a union that works with many Florida bus drivers, in an interview with The Hustle. "People are opting for better-paying jobs, and our severely underpaid education sector in Florida is not equipped to compete."
Philadelphia is also struggling to fill driver vacancies. "Our most critical needs are for teachers, bus drivers, special education assistants, food service workers, and student climate staff," city Schools Superintendent William R Hite Jr said in a recent Facebook Live press conference [from around 23:00 here].
To be fair, this suggests that Philadelphia is struggling with just about everything, but the driver shortage in the city has reached such a crisis level that it has considered bringing in members of the National Guard to drive school buses.
Amazon is currently hiring 4,800 workers in the Philadelphia area, putting them again in competition with local schools for employees.
Hite addressed this directly: "My request to Amazon is what ways do they think they could be helpful to us... from a logistics perspective," he said hopefully, in another recent press conference.
The state of Massachusetts has already activated 250 National Guard members to assist with its own school transport issues. The problems in the state became so bad that Boston teacher Jim Mayers found a neon-lit party bus complete with stripper poles had been hired to take his students on a school trip. He tweeted a picture of the bus, which went viral, but he later removed the tweet and replaced it with a sober reflection of the state of the nation's education system.
Although driving for Amazon may not end up being as well-rewarded as driving a school bus, mainly due to the higher overheads that come with drivers running their own vehicle, the possibility of working shorter hours and not having to deal with on-bus scuffles is attractive to many.
"You get kids throwing stuff at you on the bus, you get the fights, the bullying, the name-calling," one anonymous driver, who was considering leaving his school bus job, told The Hustle. "You have to be a chaperone on top of the driving. And we ain't getting paid for that part of it."
One Connecticut ex-bus driver who jumped ship to Amazon was even more succinct in his reasons for leaving: "Packages are much better than kids," he told Insider.
We have asked Amazon for comment, but have not yet received a response. ®