By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Canceling or combining bus routes have sent some Minnesota parents scrambling to get their kids to and from school this year. Union leaders are now sending a strong message to lawmakers and school boards to fix the historic shortage of school bus drivers.

They shared the permanent solutions they believe will keep people behind-the-wheel.

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On Facebook, Kimberly Adelsman told WCCO her daughter’s school in St. Paul combined four bus routes into two meaning more than hour long rides to and from school.

It’s happening in rural districts like Rebekah Johnson’s in western Minnesota; she said her kids are leaving at 6:30 a.m. and aren’t back until 5 p.m. due to a bus driver shortage.

“We can fix the problem but first we have to understand what caused the shortage. The lack of financial stability for drivers,” bus driver Teresa Jakubowski said.

A union leader and school bus driver in Rosemount, Jakubouwski’s district is down 25 drivers this school year. She’s one of three union reps to speak out at a press conference, blaming the pandemic for accelerating an ongoing problem as many drivers took different jobs and never came back once schools re-opened.

“This is not a bus driver shortage. This is a bus driver crisis,” Gus Froemke, from Teamsters 320, said.

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In Minneapolis, 30 special education routes have been cut to 13, as a pool of 170 drivers has dropped to an all-time low of 90.

Bus drivers make an average of $17 to $20 an hour, working split shifts going unpaid in the middle of the day. The unions are calling for a 5% to 10% pay increase and unemployment insurance to help bridge the gap.

“What kind of career can someone go into, when they only work nine months a year then they’re laid off and then they can’t collect unemployment insurance?” Froemke said.

A proposed bill this past spring would have allowed hourly school workers to qualify for those benefits, but an unemployment insurance advisory council couldn’t come to a consensus.

“That purposeful refusal to include us in the unemployment system is a big part of the reason many parents around the state do not have the option of sending their kids on a school bus this year,” Jakubowski said.

That’s why the unions are again calling on lawmakers and local school boards to do more and make lasting changes, worried more drivers will leave.

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The unions are also worried how some Minnesota districts are reimbursing private cab companies to take students to school. They say those drivers are not properly vetted, like school bus drivers.

Liz Collin