Behind the Wheels

A Glimpse into the Lives of School Bus Drivers

When the new school year starts on September 5, the streets of New York City will awake from their summer lull to accommodate a sudden population of young commuters. More than 1.1 million students will become part of the pulse of morning rush hour and flow of afternoon traffic. Families, communities, and schools across five boroughs will rely on the bright yellow school bus — a symbol of education in America — for transit. There are over 9,000 bus drivers in the city who make these daily trips possible, whose livelihoods depend on operating these vehicles, and whose own stories are often overlooked in the bustle of their jobs. Unlike the routes they cover, their journeys as individuals, and as professionals, haven’t always taken the most direct paths.

A school bus waits to pick up children from Bank Street Summer Camp on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.

From former chefs to current pastors, school bus drivers have backgrounds as unique as their designated courses through the city. Louis Megiae is a driver who has spent the last five years working for Jofaz Transportation, a Brooklyn-based bus company. During the school year, his normal route can take up to 2.5 hours to complete. For Megiae, the upcoming start of the school year makes little difference in his work life. “I’ve had no break,” he said after dropping off kids at a summer camp. Being a school bus driver, he says, is much more challenging than it appears.

Louis Megiae from Jofaz Transportation speaks about how people think bus driving is an easy job.

Megiae immigrated to the United States in 1995. “I’m from Latin America, Chile, South America, all the way down,” he said. Spanish is his first language, and he sometimes uses it to engage with the kids he picks up. Megiae’s roots make him a huge soccer fan. He has seen his favorite team, Real Madrid, play twice. “Once in Spain and once here in Miami a couple weeks ago,” he grinned. Megiae also loves to cook. Prior to becoming a bus driver, he worked as a chef.

Megiae compares his former job as a chef to his current profession.

A 2014 testimony by the Fiscal Policy Institute reports that 80% of school bus jobs in New York City are held by racial minorities, a figure broken down to roughly 40% Haitian, 30% Hispanic, and 10% African American. These jobs are critical to the low-income population. In 2013, when the Bloomberg administration removed a provision that had safeguarded employees’ wages and seniority rights in bus contracts, many drivers lost their jobs or had to accept reduced salaries and benefits. Unions went on strike for a month, leaving nearly 152,000 students without school transportation.

School buses do not operate on a normal schedule during the summer, but they can be spotted driving children to summer camp.

Summer offers a brief respite from still unresolved tensions around bus contracts. The season gives employees a break from their normal routines, but some drivers, like Megiae, stay busy by transporting children to and from summer camps.

Larry Hagans from SuperTrans (top left), Nick Felson from Sunshine Transportation (top right), Willy Laguna from Mario’s Transportation (bottom left), and Elizabeth Gomez from Selby Transportation (bottom right) are New York City school buses drivers who spent this past summer driving children to camp.

Ricky Georges is a school bus driver for Sunshine Transportation, a summer camp driver for Bonjour NY, and a full-time pastor who started his own church in Brooklyn called the Family Baptist Church. His parents are Haitian immigrants who raised him to be a devout Christian. Georges’ dedication to his church has led him to feel a “constant tug-of-war” between his driving schedule and religious duties. He hopes to soon be doing less driving and more preaching.

“Right now, a lot of drivers are just trying to recover,” Georges said, referring to colleagues who experienced salary cuts or lost their pensions in 2013. According to Georges, school bus drivers “have struggled the last couple years in New York City.” Fortunately for him, his job as a driver is only a small part of his story.

Ricky Georges shares his story about how he started driving — and how other activities in his life have brought him joy.

The New York State Legislature passed a bill in June 2016 to reinstate employee protection provisions in bus contracts. Governor Cuomo, however, vetoed the legislation in November 2016 based on court accounts that the protections were anti-competitive.

Back in 2014, Mayor De Blasio and his team had initiated a School Bus Grant Program to provide a temporary solution for protecting bus employees’ wages and benefits. The program was intended to last one year but is now being extended for a third, carrying an over $30 million price tag. With the 2017–2018 school year approaching, debates around the issue of contracts are bound to resurface.

The bright yellow school bus represents the future of students in America. But its own future in New York City — and the future of its drivers — is still waiting to be chartered.

Hannah Jiang will be reporting on school transit this fall for Columbia Journalism School.