Hundreds of CT bus drivers may not show up for work when vaccine mandate begins Monday
Connecticut's bus driver shortage could soon become dire as hundreds say they don't plan to return to work Monday over the state's vaccine mandate.
News 12 obtained a letter to state officials on behalf of the Connecticut School Transportation Association, which represents 76 bus companies across the state. It says in part, "We have a major catastrophe looming on September 27th when the state COVID vaccination mandate will take effect for school bus drivers. The school bus driver shortage will become 10 times worse on that day, and it will be a crisis driven by government."
As part of the state vaccination mandate, drivers who are unvaccinated must undergo weekly testing, but COSTA says 10-15% of its unvaccinated drivers refuse to do so.
Several bus drivers testified in Hartford earlier this week.
"To our Gov. Lamont, how can you sit in your office and dictate this?" said one driver.
"I just tell the bus drivers, 'You're in a tight congregate setting - a bus and surrounded by kids who aren't vaccinated.' We're trying to keep you safe and we're trying to keep them safe," Gov. Ned Lamont says.
COSTA says a poll of 12 of its bus companies, including the biggest ones, found that 1,558 drivers are unvaccinated, 227 of them won't undergo weekly testing and the remaining 1,331 will take COVID-19 tests as long as they're free and convenient.
To counter this, Lamont and his staff say state agencies responsible for approving new bus drivers are expediting every new request that comes through and that the state has other carriers ready to help out.
"We've got our partner who does Medicaid transportation services; we've connected them with a number of school districts who've expressed potential concern about driver shortages," says Connecticut Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe.
Lamont says he's not had a request to call in the National Guard yet, which is what Massachusetts has done to counter its driver shortage. COSTA is asking the governor to exempt drivers from the mandate.
If not, it suggests a 60-day extension to get a process for COVID-19 testing in place.
FULL LETTER SENT TO STATE BY COSTA:
We have a major catastrophe looming on September 27th when the state COVID vaccination mandate will take effect for school bus drivers. The school bus driver shortage will become 10 times worse on that day, and it will be a crisis driven by government.
I represent the CT School Transportation Association (COSTA) which is the statewide association for school bus operating companies. Since the governor signed Executive Order 13D and revised EO 13G, we have learned that HUNDREDS of our Connecticut school bus drivers are unvaccinated and the vast majority of these drivers are refusing to get vaccinated. There are 10-15 percent of these unvaccinated drivers who are even refusing to get tested weekly, so they have either already resigned or will be leaving their jobs this Friday as they will not comply with the state mandate (some of these percentages are even higher, depending on the school district).
The remaining drivers have agreed to weekly testing, but if there is a cost to the driver or it is not convenient, they will not comply. Many drivers have said they will go find other jobs where they do not need to test or vaccinate. As you know, we cannot afford to lose a single driver, and this new requirement will be the final straw for the transportation systems in many school districts.
The people who do not want to get vaccinated will not be pushed, cajoled, bribed, threatened or convinced in any way to get a COVID shot. They have many reasons, including privacy, principle, safety fears, mistrust of government, violation of rights, politics and not wanting to be pushed. It is a war of wills and government is losing. One large Connecticut school bus company told me they had a wonderful driver who has been with the company for 10 years, and has a perfect attendance record, as well as an exemplary safety and driving record. She refuses to get the COVID vaccination as it is against her beliefs and she is resigning effective Friday. This is a big loss for the company, the school district and the children she drives. How do we replace a driver like that?
To give you some magnitude of this issue, we polled our membership and received responses from 12 companies, including most of the larger ones in the state. Of those companies, 1,558 of the drivers are unvaccinated, 227 of those drivers are refusing to test weekly and the remaining drivers said they will test weekly only if it is free and convenient. So 227 drivers will walk out the door after work on Friday leaving 227 buses idle. The remaining 1,331 will take COVID tests the week of Sept. 27th and depending on the experience, may or may not take a test the following week. Each week the school bus companies risk losing more drivers who find the testing mandate to be burdensome and inconvenient. As they leave, it will take months to recruit, train and test new drivers, assuming we can find anyone interested in applying.
The State of Connecticut has just created the perfect storm for school bus drivers—they have instituted a COVID vaccine mandate on an industry that was already experiencing a severe driver shortage since before the pandemic, where it takes months to train, test and license a driver. And this comes on the heels of a DESPP criminal background check system failure which resulted in the stoppage of school bus driver application processing for nearly two months. There are not enough drivers to cover the daily school runs now, let alone the athletic events. Parents, school boards and superintendents are up in arms. This mandate could not have come at a worse time.
The recent COVID Compliance Guidance for vaccination and testing was just released by the Department of Public Health late Friday afternoon. This guidance is cumbersome and places heavy administrative burdens on school bus companies, especially when many of the office staff are driving buses due to the driver shortage. Please keep in mind that school bus companies safely transported children to and from school during the height of the pandemic for the last year and a half. Drivers wore masks, students wore masks, and there were sanitization cleaning protocols between each bus run and plenty of air circulation throughout the bus. Drivers and students were never closer than 3 feet to each other for a few brief seconds while boarding and exiting the bus and there were no incidents of COVID transmission from driver to student in any school district. Why would school bus drivers even need to be included in the COVID vaccine mandate?
Our simplest suggestion would be to exempt school bus drivers from the requirements of Executive Order 13G. Allow the school bus companies to enforce and maintain the COVID protocols they currently have in place that were developed with their school districts during the 2020 school year and not require the vaccine mandate for drivers. It is far safer to have students transported on a school bus than walking to school, carpooling or waiting for long periods of time at a bus stop because the runs had to be doubled up due to a driver shortage.
If the administration will not exempt school bus drivers from the COVID vaccination mandate, COSTA has several concerns and suggestions we would like to have addressed. These items are as follows:
• The time frame for implementation of driver vaccination proof or testing requirements is too short. DPH issued guidance late on the afternoon of 9/17/21 and expects compliance on 9/27/21. We need at least a 60-day extension.
• The 72-hour submission of test results to a school board after weekly COVID testing is unrealistic, especially if the delay is caused by laboratory or third party provider, for which we have no control.
• The weekly COVID testing paperwork requirement is too burdensome.
SUGGESTION: School bus companies should be allowed to model the COVID testing administrative requirements after their drug testing and safety training programs and keep all testing results in-house for viewing by appropriate school officials as needed. The companies will monitor driver testing and compliance and keep all records internally, including copies of COVID vaccination cards.
• There are not enough state testing sites to accommodate all the school bus drivers, let alone the other state and industry workers who fall under this vaccine mandate. Their hours of operation are not convenient for school bus drivers. If drivers have to take time off from work to get tested, that is another school bus that won’t operate for that school run.
• If testing is not convenient and free, school bus drivers will not continue to test and they will leave the industry, making the driver shortage even worse.
SUGGESTION: The most convenient way for drivers to be tested is by their respective companies on-site, but the school bus companies cannot bear the cost of this testing as compensation was not include in their contracts with their school districts. School districts or local health departments could also offer weekly COVID testing to school bus drivers and other mandated employees and be reimbursement by federal COVID relief dollars.
Commissioner, I am being told by the school bus companies that this COVID vaccine mandate will have a devastating effect on their driver population as many of them will not get vaccinated and will not comply with testing requirements if it is burdensome or inconvenient. We will not have enough drivers to run all the school buses and school districts may be forced to return to remote learning, for which there is no provision this school year. We need to stop this catastrophe from happening, because once the school bus drivers leave our employment, we may not be able to get them back.
COSTA representatives and I are happy to meet with you, Commissioner Gifford (who I have copied on this e-mail), the superintendents and boards of education to discuss this grave problem. I am also going to reach out to Chief of Staff Paul Mounds and Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe. We do not want to lose any more school bus drivers and we think this crisis can be averted with some common sense initiatives.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Jean Cronin, Vice President."