A Yellowknife school bus driver left their job, then told us why.
Yellowknife has now lost three school bus drivers in three weeks as the city’s student transport enters crisis mode and school districts meet with transit officials to find solutions.
Bus route nine, which brings students from areas like Trail’s End and Niven Lake to the downtown schools, won’t run from Monday, operator First Transit confirmed via Twitter.
The route joins buses 10 and 12, which are also indefinitely cancelled because of a driver shortage.
Late on Friday afternoon, a driver who recently left the job called Cabin Radio to explain why they chose to resign. They asked for anonymity to discuss details of their employment at First Transit, but provided documentation verifying they had worked for the company.
The driver described a team in which remaining employees struggled to cope with fewer and fewer colleagues. The maintenance crew servicing vehicles was “stretched thin” too, they said, describing the buses as “running at minimum quality.”
“It was the accumulation of everything,” the driver said of their decision to leave.
“There’s a lot of delaying and stalling on things there. We’re supposed to get new buses – that still hasn’t happened.
“I have my own life. With the hours of work here being limited, I’m able to survive on it, but I can’t grow on it.”
Nancy Marchiori, the Yellowknife location manager for First Transit, confirmed the resignation of a third driver and the consequent cancellation – at least for the foreseeable future – of route nine.
Marchiori said maintenance of all buses is “within compliance,” though she acknowledged a supply shortage meant parts “are not readily available for some vehicles.”
She said new municipal transit buses are due to arrive in the first three months of 2023 (First Transit also holds the municipal contract in Yellowknife), and new school buses are expected to arrive either later in 2023 or in 2024.
“I know that the drivers are getting dissatisfied with all the news that’s going on right now,” Marchiori said on Sunday. “They’re moving on to opportunities that are less stressful.”
‘There might be a domino effect’
According to the departing driver who spoke with Cabin Radio, school bus drivers in Yellowknife work for four hours each weekday (except Thursdays, which bring six-hour shifts as some schools have early dismissal).
At the moment, First Transit is offering around $27 per hour for that part-time work.
Marchiori said the company’s current contract – between First Transit and all three Yellowknife school districts – doesn’t allow for any more to be paid.
The driver who recently resigned said that the split shift drivers work, with a couple of hours in the morning and again in the afternoon, meant “you could, technically, work another part-time job, but your availability is limited.”
Asked what might have kept them in the job, they said they wished their employer had offered more flexibility and accommodated certain personal circumstances. More broadly, they said they felt like Yellowknife was “not a priority for the company” nationally.
“We’re out in the boonies, we’re several hours away from the nearest town. Most the time, we’re forgotten,” they said was their impression.
“I’ll probably find a small job here and maybe look outside of Yellowknife,” the outgoing driver said. “I know that there are some other transit companies, like in Alberta. As a school bus driver, I already have a pretty good record. I’m very likely to be fast-tracked for training and get the qualifications for an actual transit bus.
“I’m just lucky that I’m comfortable enough to leave. There could be a couple more [drivers] that are definitely on the line [about resigning] right now – there might be a domino effect – but I can’t say for certain. People need jobs. It takes a bit to find alternatives.”
Company and schools meet
Marchiori and the three Yellowknife districts – YK1, Yellowknife Catholic Schools and the Commission scolaire francophone – met on Thursday to look for solutions, with three of 15 routes now out of service and dozens of families lacking transportation to and from school.
The situation is not helped by a childcare crisis unfolding in tandem. Not only are parents unable to get children to and from school, there are barely any spaces in after-school programs on which to lean for support.
Marchiori urged parents to have patience and appreciate that “it is going to be a difficult fix,” with almost nobody available to fill positions and the parties locked into a contract with set terms.
Changing the contract is one solution, but that will require the agreement of all three school districts and First Transit, which is likely to require time – assuming the districts are prepared to enter into a contract that would, presumably, be more costly than the current one in order to entice more staff.
Marchiori, for example, said she wishes bus drivers could have full-time jobs rather than part-time employment, a switch that she says would make hiring easier. (At least one school superintendent has expressed the same desire, though it’s not clear if there is a way to make that change on which all parties agree.)
Marchiori also thinks introducing a minimum distance between a student’s home and a school would help. If you live nearer to a school than that minimum distance, you don’t qualify for transit.
“I think the school boards listened to some of the concerns that I’ve had over many years about maybe structuring who can ride on the bus,” she said.
“It might free up enough space on our buses so that if we are running a route short, we can double up. But it’s still not going to address the demand for school bus drivers right now. I think we need to go from part-time employees to full-time employees. That would definitely draw in more people.”
Thursday’s meeting is also understood to have contemplated a “double run” of the bus system, serving some routes before others, which would mean some students arrive late, or a system whereby routes are rotated out of service so that not all of the burden falls on the routes currently without drivers.
Another possibility is that other companies might be found to run services that supplement First Transit’s operations.
In the meantime, Marchiori urged families to follow First Transit’s Yellowknife office on Twitter for the quickest updates.
“We’re doing everything we can,” she said.