Even with higher pay and signing bonuses, public schools struggle to hire bus drivers and cafeteria workers

February 9, 2022, 4:45 PM UTC

No one wants to be a cafeteria worker anymore. And they don’t want to drive the school bus either.

Public schools have been struggling to fill support staff positions since the Great Recession decimated the workforce in the mid-2000s, and the pandemic has made things worse. If hiring kept pace with enrollment, public K-12 education employment today would be 8.6% higher than fall 2008 levels. Instead, it’s down 5.3%, according to a new report released last week by the Economic Policy Institute, interpreting data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Popular discourse around the American public education system tends to focus on the problems facing teachers, but what about the thousands of support staff, like bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodial staff, who work alongside them and are facing many of the same problems?

“I have been in the school nutrition industry business for 25-plus years and have never seen things like this before in my career,” says Beth Wallace, the president of the nonprofit School Nutrition Association, which represents over 50,000 cafeteria workers across the U.S. She also serves as the executive director of food and nutrition services for Jefferson County public schools in Colorado. “I thought I’d seen most things, but this one is a new one for me,” she says of the struggle to fill open positions in her district.

“I have been in the school nutrition industry business for 25-plus years and have never seen things like this before in my career”

Beth Wallace, President, School nutrition ASSOCIATION

There are two sectors in which job loss has been the most significant over the course of the pandemic: leisure and hospitality, and state and local government. Most job losses in the latter category occurred specifically in public K-12 education, says David Cooper, director of the economic analysis and research network at EPI and coauthor of the report.

“What’s notable about that sector is that the jobs haven’t been coming back in the same way that jobs in leisure and hospitality have,” he says.

The lag in employment is persisting at a time when schools need more help than ever, with staff confronting new challenges and responsibilities brought about by the pandemic, from helping students readjust to in-person school after months of online learning to instituting and enforcing new health and safety protocols. 

“All of these staffing shortages are even more acute than they would be in a normal situation,” says Cooper.

The EPI report suggests two reasons for why school support jobs are not rebounding, the first being that workers in those roles tend to skew older and are therefore more likely to have serious COVID-19-related health concerns. 

Of all U.S. workers, adults ages 50 and older make up a little less than a third of the workforce. But the demographic is overrepresented in public K-12 education, where 66.2% of bus drivers, 55.4% of custodians, and 50.4% of cafeteria workers are 50 and older. School support staff roles require workers to be in-person and interacting with kids, many of whom weren’t vaccinated when they returned to school in the fall of 2021. The CDC approved the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 only last November, and vaccine rates remain low for this age group.

Kelly Orton, director of support services at the Salt Lake City School District, has seen older workers leave his district’s labor pool permanently. “We were hoping they would come back, and they really have not come back.” 

The second reason why public schools continue to face support staff shortages, according to Cooper, is that those positions are severely underpaid. 

Support staff wages in public K-12 schools are below industry standards, according to the EPI report. Adjusting numbers to reflect current inflation, between 2014 and 2019, the median weekly wage for cafeteria workers was $331, while the average American worker earned $790. Low wages are not just the result of low hourly rates, but limited hours as well. The report found that bus drivers and cafeteria workers average about 30 hours per week.

Both Wallace and Orton’s districts have raised wages in an attempt to attract cafeteria workers back, with limited success. 

Orton’s department has positions allocated for 91 hourly employees, and they are trying to fill 30 vacancies. “We’ve just had people going out left and right,” Orton says. “We’ve been basically having to beg for help from the schools in any way we can. During the last two months we relied on teachers, principals, custodians, family, and facility grounds crews to help serve meals each day.”

“We need labor, not money.”

Kelly Orton, Director of support services, salt lake city school district

Last Tuesday, his district approved a midyear budget change to increase entry wages for cafeteria employees by $1.50, to a total of $15 an hour—the going wage rate at restaurants in the area. A midyear change is unusual, says Orton.

“The first goal is to have retention, not to lose any more. The second is to get more workers,” he says.

Wallace’s district also raised hourly entry wages to $15, from $12.43, and instituted signing and referral bonuses for current employees. The effort is “not even making a dent” in vacancies,  Wallace says, and she’s beginning to wonder if there’s no longer a labor pool that’s interested in nutrition work at public schools.

EPI’s Cooper sees Wallace’s hypothesis as evidence there needs to be a bigger shift in public perception and treatment of education careers in the U.S.

“Until we start talking about these being worthwhile jobs that are providing a valuable service to communities and creating the space to educate the next generation of our country, we’re going to continue to struggle to get people to want to take them,” he says.

In his report, Cooper proposes that the pandemic offers a unique opportunity to initiate that kind of change, with federal funds available to school districts at an unforeseen scale. 

“Federal COVID relief funds offer a down payment on these investments, but making them sustainable will require an overhaul of how many states fund schools,” Cooper and co-author Sebastian Martinez Hickey wrote in the EPI’s report.

The federal government has made efforts beyond just allocating funds to help alleviate the pandemic’s stress on school staff. In January, the Department of Education and the Department of Transportation issued a joint action waiving the portion of the commercial driver’s license skills test that requires applicants to identify under-the-hood engine components in a bid to attract new drivers. 

Similarly, the Department of Agriculture expanded its pandemic-related relief initiatives in January, increasing the reimbursement rate schools receive for each meal they serve. Both Orton and Wallace point to the reimbursement program as essential to mitigating some effects of the labor shortage, as it provides districts’ nutrition programs with greater access to funds that can go toward labor costs.

But like COVID relief funds, these measures are just temporary. And Cooper is skeptical of these measures, which include states like Massachusetts and Ohio calling in the National Guard to solve bus driver shortages. 

“It doesn’t fix the long-term pipeline challenges,” he says. “The only way you’re going to do that is to make these more attractive jobs.”

School administrators are unsure that federal pandemic relief funds will lead to long-term change. “One-time money is great for those air purifiers and the PPE that’s needed, maybe the outdoor learning spaces, but in terms of bringing in the people that we really need to support our kids and to support our educators as we respond, it’s hard with one-time dollars, ” says Greg Moffitt, principal of the Fairmont Charter Elementary School in Vacaville, Calif.

Wallace, whose 450-person department currently has 180 vacant positions, voices similar concerns: “[O]nce you invest in [the labor force], that’s long-term, you’ve got to be able to sustain it. You can’t use one-time money other than to give somebody a bonus or a one-time pay.”

“We’ve been able to bring on additional staff with it and extend the hours of our staff with those one-time dollars. But long term that’s just not sustainable,” adds Moffitt.

Ultimately, it’s likely we’ll need a paradigm shift in order to refocus public funding on careers in public education in the U.S., Cooper argues, though he recognizes the challenges.

“If we think about the cost to society if we can’t get schools open, the cost to parents if they don’t have a place to send their kids so they can go to work,” he says, “that’s a much higher cost than what might be required to make these permanently better jobs.” 

He points to a piece of legislation that passed in Illinois in 2020, House Bill 2455, that made non-licensed school employees eligible to receive unemployment insurance during the summer months when school is not in session. It’s one tangible example of what he sees as the necessary long-term effort to improve working conditions for education support jobs.

“Offering guaranteed benefits, retirement benefits, health care benefits for some of those positions that have been traditionally part-time is another way to make those jobs more attractive,” he says.

These potential reforms would need to play out on years or decades-long timelines. Orton and Wallace need more rapid solutions.

The labor shortage has pushed Orton’s district to desperate measures. It’s now asking local businesses to “adopt a school” by providing volunteer labor during lunch periods. Similar partnerships have existed in the past, with local organizations donating money to support schools. “We need labor, not money,” says Orton. 

“This isn’t going to go away,” warns Wallace.

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