Despite its ambitions to transform student transportation with top-of-the-line technology and better pay for bus drivers, Howard County’s newest school bus operator seems to be suffering from the same labor shortage that’s hampered school districts across the U.S.
Since it landed on the East Coast from Silicon Valley, Zum — the transportation company with a three-year, $27 million contract to operate nearly half of Howard County’s school bus routes — has been touting a starting hourly wage for drivers of $26 to $30 and generous benefits. One driver who spoke with The Baltimore Banner last week referred to the package as “everything we’ve always wanted.”
But Zum still struggled to staff up. The company couldn’t find enough local drivers to cover its 230 bus routes by the first day of school Monday, so it flew in 70 bus drivers from Washington state. Then, Monday morning, 20 drivers “decided not to show up for work,” the company wrote in a blog post addressing the fiasco, leaving 54 busloads of kids and their families to figure out their own way to school for the week. The company blamed a “significant logjam” with the state’s driver certification process for delays getting more drivers on the road.
So did Zum bite off more than it could chew?
Zum officials, who spoke with The Banner at length about its technology and operations, have declined interview requests since Monday.
“To try to come in and get 230 drivers in six months is almost unheard of,” said Mitch Gunther, owner of MBG Enterprises, another bus company that contracts with Howard County Public Schools. Zum signed its contract with the school system in February.
The 21 companies that drive bus routes for the school district are all competing for the same drivers certified to operate a school bus, Gunther and other contractors told The Baltimore Banner.
Three Howard County bus contractors said that they are fully staffed and operating their routes without issue, seemingly contradicting Superintendent Michael Martirano’s Wednesday morning remarks that all contractors were feeling the squeeze.
To operate a school bus in Maryland, a driver has to pass a series of tests to obtain a commercial driver’s license. Then each individual school system has to sign off on them with additional requirements, including a drug test, background check, a clean driving record and a physical.
“If someone comes in without a [commercial driver’s] license, it’s going to be a while before they get behind the wheel,” said Gunther, who estimated a two-month window from when a person without experience starts the process to when they start driving a bright yellow bus with kids onboard.
And he said that timeline can frustrate some people — if drivers are waiting to get certified without making any money, some decide to cut their losses and look for another job.
Zum posted on its website Wednesday that it was “working tirelessly to recruit and hire new drivers,” saying that “there was a very large gap to fill in Howard County.” The Baltimore Banner asked the company how many drivers were waiting in the pipeline to get certified, but a spokesperson did not answer questions Wednesday.
A spokesperson for the Motor Vehicle Administration, which issues commercial driver’s licenses, wrote in an email that it does not have a backlog to test school bus drivers. And Brian Bassett, a spokesperson for Howard County Public Schools, wrote in an email that the system “does not have a role in the hiring, onboarding, or licensing/certification of new drivers by transportation contractors.”
The company has gotten off on the wrong foot with other area contractors, too. Barbara Bayer, who co-owns Woodlawn Motor Coach, said Zum spent the summer actively recruiting Woodlawn drivers by placing hiring advertisements near Bayer’s place of business, calling her drivers at their homes and boarding buses to hand them business cards.
And drivers contracted to provide paratransit service through MTA MobilityLink — where having a commercial driver’s license is not a requirement — said Zum has actively been recruiting them, too.
Gunther referred to the area driver pool as “exhausted.” He and Bayer said they’ve been asking the school board for more money to increase wages and cover maintenance and fuel costs associated with inflation. He’s disappointed that Howard didn’t go in the same direction as Anne Arundel County, which he said was forthcoming with federal aid money during the pandemic.
“Money is the very first thing,” said Michael Bowen, owner of Bowen Bus Service and operating buses for the county’s school system since 2001. He thinks paying drivers more is the key to hiring and retention. Like Gunther and Bayer, he’s been asking the county for additional money on their contracts to raise driver wages.
After experiencing school bus issues of their own the past couple of years, Anne Arundel County Public Schools raised pay for drivers to $27 an hour this academic year, and busing is reportedly going smoothly so far.
On Tuesday, Howard County Executive Calvin Ball issued a statement in response to the school bus delays and cancellations, saying the county “fully funded the Board of Education’s transportation budget request,” for the year, an $8.2 million increase from the previous year. “Over the last four years, the County has increased HCPSS’s Student Transportation budget by approximately 40 percent over previous years’ funding levels,” the statement continued.
And the smaller contractors are saying Zum is getting more money per route than they are. A Zum spokesperson did not answer questions about its per-route rate on Wednesday.
In a July memo to the Board of Education, Superintendent Martirano addressed the question of why they awarded a more expensive contract to an out-of-state contractor over smaller, local bus companies.
The response referenced the bus driver shortage, alluded to contracts not being fulfilled by current bus operators, and noted that Zum “is confident they are able to fill all required routes because of their competitive pay and benefits packages they offer drivers.”
“If they gave us that kind of money, we would be fully staffed with more drivers than we would know what to do with,” Bowen said.
Lillian Reed and Liz Bowie contributed reporting.
Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.