"These wheels will not move:" Cumberland County bus drivers pledge to continue "sick out" until pay increases
Posted November 8, 2021 8:46 a.m. EST
Updated November 9, 2021 5:43 p.m. EST
Fayetteville, N.C. — Hundreds of students found themselves stuck at school Tuesday afternoon when more than 100 buses were absent from the route as drivers protested for better pay.
Some of the bus drivers said they plan to continue their "sick out" until they are given higher pay, meaning Cumberland County parents may need to continue finding alternate transportation for their children.
The drivers say they're frustrated and want more money, especially special education drivers, who take care of children with special or medical needs.
"We call ourselves CNAs with CDLs," said one special education driver, who said she feels they should be paid more than standard bus drivers.
She said their wheels will not move until they're paid what they are worth.
More than a third of the 47,000 Cumberland County Schools students depend on bus service to get to school, and some families say their children will have to miss school without transportation.
Students who can't make it to school can learn online and won't be counted absent.
School transportation officials discuss mitigation strategies
Cumberland County Schools officials met with more than 100 school bus drivers last week to hear their demands and offer solutions.
The starting pay for drivers in the district is $12.21 an hour. Transportation Director Kristi Harden said that, while drivers haven't said they are demanding more money, that's been a consistent theme among drivers statewide.
"The salaries are really driven by the state, so, at this time, we did not talk about specifically what salaries would look like moving forward," Harden said.
Bus drivers recently received a $1,000 bonus from the district, as did all other employees.
Drivers who spoke with WRAL News said low pay isn't the only problem, noting that they feel the district isn't doing enough to address the impact a shortage of drivers has had on them.
Cumberland County Schools has 46 vacant bus driver positions.
"The biggest thing is money. That's why you can't keep bus drivers," driver Gina Gibbs said, adding that unruly students and pandemic-related protocols also are issues. "We have some great students, and then we have some challenges."
Gibbs said she doesn't plan to call out sick on Tuesday, but she supports fellow drivers' efforts to bring attention to the problems they face.
"I have driven for another county before – almost five years ago – and they're even getting more money now than this county has gotten," she said.
Bus driver starting pay is significantly higher in nearby counties
Starting pay is $15 per hour in the Wake County Public School System, but the state's largest school district still has 220 driver vacancies.
Durham Public Schools needs another 70 drivers, even though the district pays one of the highest hourly wages in the region at $17 per hour.
Cumberland County Schools officials said a baseline for driver salaries are determined by the state, and giving raises can be complicated.
"I know there were some possibilities in the upcoming budget that will come up for approval where there could be as much as a 3 percent increase in pay for classified employees, which would include our bus drivers," district spokesman Lindsay Whitley said.
Whitley said officials don't know how many drivers might not show up for work on Tuesday, and they can't really take action until then.
"We understand that parents need to know these things in advance, which is why, as soon as we found out about this situation, we were in a hurry to get a message out to families," he said.
Parents can download the Here Comes the Bus app to track their child's route, officials said.