Big wage boost risks stranding students, bus biz warns

Looming hikes in Ontario’s minimum wage could strand school kids at roadsides next year, a London-based busing operator and two industry groups warn.

The industry already is struggling to recruit and hang on to drivers, even though they’re usually paid more than the existing minimum wage of $11.70 an hour, which will jump to $14 on Jan.1 and $15 a year later - writes

Hiking the minimum to $14 or $15 will make it hard to pay the wages needed to lure drivers away from less-demanding jobs, says Perry Ferguson, president of London-based Voyageur Transportation.

“We are already in a critical situation with drivers. If we don’t get additional funding in January, we will not be able to meet the need and that will mean kids sitting at the stops,” he said Thursday.

The Ontario Liberal government’s plan to boost the minimum wage to $15 by 2019 has come under criticism by many, especially by business groups warning of dire job losses.

The province’s Financial Accountability Office has forecast the plan — a move to lift low-wage workers out of poverty and fight so-called precarious work — could lead to a net loss of 50,000 jobs.

More than 800,000 Ontario students are transported daily to and from school, almost all through contracts with school bus operators.

The Ontario School Bus Association, which includes Voyageur, said its members are locked into long-term contracts that didn’t anticipate the minimum wage hike — and that London is one of seven communities where service is most in peril.

“As operators we support the move to increase minimum wage, but as an industry solely funded by government and experiencing driver recruitment and retention issues, we can’t guarantee that service delivery will be possible,” Mark Begg, the group’s president, said.

The association is lobbying the government to boost funding for busing. School boards get provincial funding for busing and hire bus companies through regional consortiums.

Begg said the association has a responsibility to warn parents about possible disruption in service as soon as January.

Voyageur Transportation employs about 600 drivers and handles school bus contracts in London, Kitchener-Waterloo, Halton, York, Wellington County and Ottawa. Ferguson said his company pays bus drivers $13 to $17 an hour, depending on the area of the province.

Ontario’s minimum wage rose to $11.60 on Oct. 1.

At $15 by 2019, the Ontario minimum would be tied with Alberta’s as the nation’s highest wage.

Ferguson said bus drivers deserve more than the minimum wage because they require 50hours of training and take on serious responsibility for kids’ safety. He said his company is seeing a dwindling number of applicants for available jobs.

“If you can work at Tim Hortons for $14 an hour or drive a bus, you would work at Tim Hortons,” he said.

Some companies, including Arva-based Murphy Bus Lines, belong to another industry group, the Independent School Bus Operators Association (ISBOA), whose new executive director is former London city councillor Roger Caranci.

Caranci said ISBOA has the same concerns about the minimum wage hikes and wants more provincial funding to use for drivers’ wages.

“Drivers have never been compensated for what they are worth. The companies will put that money towards their drivers if they get it. They won’t put it in their pockets” said Caranci.

Mitzie Hunter, a spokesperson for Ontario Education Minister, said the government has increased funding for school transportation by $12.6million this year and is working with boards and bus companies to deal with the impact of the rising minimum wage. But the government also seems to be bracing for disruptions in January.

“We also understand the concern and frustration that parents and students may experience as a result of service disruptions,” Richard Francella, the minister’s spokesperson, said in an email toThe Free Press.

“The minister is monitoring this situation and is expecting boards and bus operators to work together to do everything possible to prevent service interruptions,” he added.

But the Progressive Conservative labour critic at Queen’s Park called the situation just another illustration of the government’s “reckless” plan to quickly hike the minimum wage.

“It’s too much, too soon and we know it will hurt jobs, including London,” said John Yakabuski, the MPP for Renfrew-Nipissing-Pembroke.

The region’s two London-based school authorities, the public Thames Valley District and London District Catholic school boards, referred questions about the issue to Southwestern Ontario Student Transportation Services, the regional busing agency. It said it “would not be appropriate or fair to our providers to comment on contractual matters.”

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