When can ‘fatigued’ and ‘overwhelmed’ Henrico bus drivers expect help?

Henrico County

HENRICO, Va. (WRIC)– A shortage of bus drivers is overwhelming many local school districts, including Henrico County.

Chief of Operations Lenny Pritchard said the district is still down 100 drivers, even after announcing incentives like hiring and retention bonuses and pay increases. Help is on the way — but it won’t be here overnight.

“Henrico’s not giving us a challenge. They’ve given us the impossible,” said Brenda Riddell, who has been a bus driver of nine years, during a School Board meeting last week.

Drivers like Riddell are taking double, sometimes triple, runs back and forth from schools to the same neighborhoods.

Pritchard said at the beginning of the school year, the transportation team recorded more than 500 daily double runs and many triple runs as well. The busiest areas are in the Three Chopt and Tuckahoe districts because more children are riding busses and not enough drivers are assigned in the zones.

Riddell also said the amount of COVID-19 related paperwork drivers have to keep track of on a daily basis is unmanageable.

“We’re overwhelmed, we’re tired, we’re fatigued,” she said.

The chief of operations said paperwork has been one of the largest challenges for drivers, who have to keep track of where students sit as part of a COVID-19 mitigation strategy.

“We are asking students names, making sure they know their assigned seat, checking that off the list,” Riddell said. “All this is being done in the middle of busy roads during rush hour traffic while having papers on your left leg, your right leg with the names of the kids, and then you’re using your trash can as a file cabinet just to make sure your papers aren’t all over the bus,”

Pritchard said his team is working to find a solution for that. Right now, they’re looking at digitalizing the seating charts. “So there’s a copy that would be at the school for any contact tracing,” he said, “rather than having to fish through papers.”

“We hear them, we do. We know that they’re tired and we know that they’re frustrated,” he said in an interview with 8News Wednesday.

He said the pay increases still have not attracted the numbers that a lot of people hoped they would get. However, dozens of potential candidates have applied. Right now, 50 candidates are going through different stages of the at least six week long hiring process, including mandatory testing and licensing.

In August, HCPS announced $1,000 bonuses for new drivers with no experience, a $2,000 bonus to new drivers who already have a CDL license, and a $3,000 bonus to those who already have further other qualifications. This month, the division announced its lowest-paid drivers would get a 15 percent pay increase.

Some long-time drivers told 8News they are upset that new drivers are making the same as they are now. According to Pritchard, a longevity raise will also rake effect in December for drivers who’ve been with the district for 10 years or more.

But not all people who apply will be hired for a variety of reasons, like failing to pass a test. He also said certain DMV rules require applicants to wait 15 days before trying to pass tests again, which is another stall in the process.

“Any little given thing could be a setback to where those numbers change,” Pritchard said. “Ideally we hope to capture all 50 of those [candidates]. That would put a huge help and dent into our problems.”

He said if all 50 were hired, they’d be close to pre-pandemic staffing levels. Right now, just about seven are close to getting started. Others are still several weeks out. 8News asked how long it will take for solutions to make an impact on the ground.

“Many of our drivers that we’re hoping to capture begin classes in October. So you’re looking at well into thanksgiving that where these things can be addressed,” Pritchard said.

He said he’s hopeful that this problem will eventually be solved.

“You have to be optimistic and hope that this is gonna get better and we know that it will,” Pritchard said, while praising the current drivers who’ve stepped up to the plate to get children to and from schoool safely.

One tool that has proven to be effective is job fairs, according to the chief of operations. There’s another one coming up at Hermitage High School on Oct. 16.

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