Hernando County school bus drivers clustered in small groups one day last week as bright yellow buses roared out of the bus barn on the way to their afternoon pickups.
On many of their minds: The school district's long-running driver shortage.
The pool of substitute drivers has drastically dwindled. When anyone is out — sick, on vacation or leave — they need to pick up the slack.
"It's tough," said driver Tom Bosse. "It puts a lot of stress on us."
The shortage means all hands behind the wheel — drivers pick up entire routes or cover extra stops. When no substitutes are left, employees from the transportation department's office help.
"When you don't have enough drivers to cover the routes, then that makes everybody uneasy," said Doris Roberts, an 18-year veteran. "We don't have enough drivers here."
It's an issue across the Tampa Bay area.
Every school district in the region, to varying degrees, is experiencing a shortage of bus drivers.
Hillsborough County has the biggest deficit. At last count, there were 144 vacancies. Another 21 drivers were on leaves of absence, and the rate of absenteeism is 20 percent.
The workforce feels the stress, service union president Vicki Lawry told the School Board at a recent meeting.
"Your drivers are taxed, they're tired, they double-trip, they triple-trip, they are overloaded," Lawry said. "They are doing everything they can in order to run as efficiently and effectively and as safely as possible." In some cases, "we're talking 65 to 77 students with one adult to control it all."
They've tried to boost their recruiting: In December, the School Board okayed bonuses to employees who successfully recruit drivers.
Pinellas County's school district currently has 518 bus drivers and 35 driver openings, said schools spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra. On an average day, about 20 drivers might be absent, she noted.
This is about normal and "enough to cover all of the routes safely," she said.
The shortage means bus drivers regularly cover extra bus stops or extra routes, she said, as is done in the other districts.
Pinellas driver Joe Morgan said bus drivers have grown used to the shortage. "It's an every year thing," he said.
Pasco County schools appeared in the best shape, needing fewer than 10 drivers, said Gary Sawyer, Pasco schools transportation director. He said the district is not forced to have drivers consistently making double or triple runs.
"We consider ourselves in excellent shape," he said. "I can remember years ago we were in the same boat as everybody else."
He said he noticed the bus driver staffing situation improve when the district upped the pay to $11.25 an hour.
Hernando County transportation director Doug Compton is keenly aware of the problems facing drivers.
"Anytime someone has to go above and beyond the normal duties, the normal route, it certainly would get stressful," he said.
While drivers feel the strain, district officials said there are very few instances of students being delivered late to school.
Hernando seems to have had the most issues.
In March, the district had two days where two buses were delayed by about an hour because it didn't have enough drivers, Compton said.
As a result, the district curtailed hours the buses would be available for field trips and sporting events.
Some events have had to be canceled or rescheduled. Other times, schools must charter buses.
Weeki Wachee High School athletic director Mark Lee says that's not a problem this year because there is enough money in the travel budget for athletic events, but could be an issue next year.
Hernando superintendent Bryan Blavatt said a more drastic change might be needed if the situation doesn't change: ending district-provided busing for all field trips.
"Maybe we can't do field trips because our primary focus has to be getting kids to and from school," he said.
Hernando is looking at staffing changes for next year, adding permanent "utility operators" instead of relying on part-time substitutes. This is more in line with what's done at the other districts.
Meanwhile, the district has been ferociously trying to add new drivers, advertising on bumper stickers and marquees throughout the county.
So why is it so challenging to find bus drivers?
Money, many drivers say.
"We start at $10.56 an hour for the responsibility of everything that goes on inside and outside the bus," said Lawry, the Hillsborough union president.
She said drivers put up with a lot of disruptions and headaches.
Pinellas bus driver Morgan agreed.
"I think it's a sin that we're paid so little amount of money for the responsibilities that we have," the eight-year driver said.
Morgan said he feels bus drivers are treated with a lack of respect from the school district.
Compton said part of the reason for the shortage is because it is difficult to find a well-qualified applicant. Drivers must pass a drug test and background check and go through a 40-hour unpaid training period.
"It's a stringent process, and we're very picky," he said.
Staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.