School buses lined up at the Westbrook School Department Transportation lot on Monday. The district is down five of the 17 full-time drivers it needs to be fully staffed. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The Westbrook school district is operating without nearly one-third of the bus drivers it needs to be fully staffed, leaving the remaining drivers exhausted and frustrated, and students cramped on crowded buses and stranded at bus stops or at school as they wait for drivers to complete multiple runs.

The district is down five full-time drivers out of a normal roster of 17. It’s also missing one part-time driver and is short one of three bus aides. And the school board is now considering raising pay in hopes of competing with other districts that also are trying to hire drivers.

Like school districts across Maine and the nation, Westbrook has been short bus drivers for years. Recruiting and retaining school bus drivers has long been challenging due to low pay, irregular hours and licensing requirements. The pandemic intensified the issue.

School districts around the state are struggling to hire drivers and experiencing some of the same issues as Westbrook. The situation is severe enough that some districts have been unable to transport athletes to away games, or canceled bus routes to and from school and left students and their families to figure out transportation.

In the four years that Melissa Foye has been the director of transportation for the Westbrook School Department, it has never been fully staffed with bus drivers, she said.

But the shortage recently reached a critical point. The district lost two drivers this year, bringing them down to 12 full-time staff. Down so many drivers, those remaining have been left to pick up the slack, which means more routes, more driving, and more students on buses. Three drivers who asked not to be identified because of concerns about losing their jobs said the situation is unsustainable and unsafe.


“Imagine three teenagers, maybe 140 pounds, all in one seat,” said one bus driver. “It’s hard to do my job safely, to focus on driving, plus pay attention to all the kids. It’s a big safety issue and I’m exhausted.”

The drivers want the district to raise wages. They hope that raising pay to match or exceed that of bus drivers in surrounding communities will help recruit and retain drivers.

Westbrook bus drivers are paid between $18.33 per hour ($38,126 a year if working full time) for those who are just starting out and $22.15 (around $46,072 annually) for those who have been on the job over 25 years, according to the 2021-24 Westbrook support staff collective bargaining agreement.

The national average hourly wage for bus drivers is $20.39 ($42,411 a year for a full-time employee), according to May 2022 United States Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In Maine, the average hourly wage is between $21.14 ($42,280 a year) and $24.46 ($47,060 annually), according to the same BLS data set.


The Westbrook bus driver’s contract doesn’t expire until the end of the year, but the district is considering raising pay before it expires to attract drivers. The Westbrook School Committee is scheduled to have a confidential discussion on bus driver wages on Wednesday, Chair Sue Salisbury said.


Drivers said they are working long hours – starting their days at 6 a.m. and sometimes not returning home until close to midnight, and that they are exhausted and feel the district is ignoring the challenges they are facing.

“We would like some recognition for how overworked and underpaid we are,” one of the drivers said. “The district needs to get some people hired because we can’t do it anymore.” 

District Superintendent Peter Lancia said he knows that the district is facing a severe bus driver shortage and said the district is doing what it can to hire drivers.

“We’re trying to address the needs (bus drivers) present and balance their needs with the needs of those in other departments,” Lancia said. “They are being heard and listened to and we’re doing what we can to make things better.”

The drivers are not actively driving the whole time they are at work – they might have an hour of downtime in the middle of the day or time to kill while they wait for students to play a game – but they said the long days are exhausting. In past years, when the shortage was less severe, they had more free time midday, and each had fewer afternoon, evening and weekend sports and extracurricular trips to take.

“When you’re fully staffed (the job) is awesome,” one driver said. “When you’re down three, four, five people, there is a huge burden on those remaining.”


Although the district is considering raising pay, Lancia said he’s not sure it would help ease the shortage.


“The biggest issue is that there just aren’t people to hire right now,” he said. “There aren’t candidates who are already licensed, or even who are interested in getting trained by the district.”

The district is advertising its open positions, guaranteeing a minimum of 40 hours of work a week and providing paid training in an effort to woo drivers to the district, Lancia said.

To manage the shortage in the near term, drivers are picking up extra work, often doing double runs – covering their routes plus a second route. Westbrook drivers said picking up double runs day after day is exhausting. Relying on double runs also means students on the second run are getting picked up late and dropped off to school or home late, waiting around 15 to 20 minutes for their bus and sometimes missing the first part of the school day.

The double runs are done in part to limit overcrowding, Lancia said. But drivers said the buses are packed to the brim, with three high schoolers plus their backpacks and sometimes instruments or sports equipment, to a seat.


There is no federal or state regulation specifying the number of people who can sit on a school bus seat. School bus manufacturers determine seating capacity and it is usually up to school transportation providers to determine the number of people who can fit safely, according to the U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

But the seats generally fit three smaller elementary school students or two larger students, and are only designed to protect students in the case of a crash if they are sitting fully inside the school bus seats, also according to the highway safety administration.

Foye, the transportation director, said students are being safely bussed to and from school. “Safety is our first and only priority,” she said.

Westbrook drivers want to stay in their district. They like their boss and their colleagues. Many have been there for years.

Still, they said the current situation is becoming untenable.

“We have strong morale as a group, we treat each other like family and our boss is great,” one driver said. “But we’re exhausted and can’t do it anymore. We need change now.”

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