Mills on the penny

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Very few people believe that they make enough money in their job. Most people who believe they aren’t paid enough are probably right. It seems like the hardest jobs pay the least. The two hardest jobs I have ever worked paid me a pittance. 

Working in a factory was one of those jobs. Eight hours a day, five days a week. Every minute on the plant floor had to be productive. If you weren’t in pain by the end of the long, mentally and physically draining day, chances are you weren’t working up to the supervisors’ standards. Being raised in a household where hard work mattered, I used to work myself to total exhaustion. To this day, I still have carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists as my reward. The pain keeps me up at night. 

Today, as a newspaper editor, educator, and mental health counsellor, I make more than double what I used to make as a factory worker. That is to say that EACH role pays me more than double, hourly. Yes, the roles can be busy and stressful and are saddled with responsibility and informed by education and experience, but they are also jobs I love. I enjoy going to work every day.

I have to imagine that being a school bus driver is a job of passion. It certainly isn’t a job driven by the pay rate. My oldest son starts grade 7 in a week, but he may not have a bus to bring him to school, 20 kilometres away. My wife and I can’t be the only parents who received an email from the UCDSB last week stating that a contract offer from Student Transportation of Eastern Ontario was rejected by school bus companies, and that school buses may therefore not be up and running in time for the new school year. I had the displeasure of receiving the email twice – once as a UCDSB staff member, and once as a parent. You can read a release about it in this newspaper. 

This will not be a warm welcome to the grade 7 routine for my son, and I’m sure that hundreds if not thousands of other students will feel the pain as well. Whose fault is it that a critical part of the education system may not be up and running when the new school year starts? Not the bus drivers. Let me say it louder: NOT THE BUS DRIVERS!

It’s easy to throw around words like “greedy”. When the CUPE education support workers were on strike (one of whom was me), “greed” was tossed around as an underlying cause. Oh, what nonsense. If you don’t pay people what they are worth, there will be no one to fill critical jobs. Critical services rely on critical jobs. You can’t make an omelette if you’re not willing to buy eggs. 

I would refer to the wage that bus drivers actually make as laughable, except it’s not funny at all. In our area, I have seen job postings with a range of $15.50 – $19.25 hourly. One of the companies that serves the school I work at has a listing for $15.50 hourly. Yes, that’s minimum wage. It’s a tough labour market these days. McDonalds pays its new hires $16.50 per hour. And yet we have the nerve to call bus drivers “greedy” when they expect living wages for driving our children around. 

Remember, there are no other adults on that bus. School bus drivers are not just drivers, they are also authority figures. If your child suddenly starts getting brutally beaten up by another student on route to school, you don’t expect the bus driver to simply keep driving, do you? Of course not. School bus drivers are education workers too. Stop expecting them to accept pay that labels them as “just a driver”. Besides, they are drivers with class B licenses who are driving a giant, clunky tube that seats up to 70 unbuckled and precious children at a time.

A wage of $15.50 is horrendous for a school bus driver. I wouldn’t even call it “pennies on the dollar”. I would call it “mills on the penny”. Yes, although they haven’t been used in about 60 years and probably weren’t well known or used since far earlier than that, the USA once had a denomination smaller than the penny – one tenth of a penny, to be precise, named the “mill”. Only a piece of money so worthless can be used as an adequate analogy for the insult of expecting school bus drivers to work for $15.50 per hour. 

There will surely be parents who believe that bus drivers should take it on the chin and get back to work. As previously stated, I grew up in a house that valued hard work and doing one’s fair share. There was no complaining. You got up and did your duty. No whining and no protesting. When someone needed help, you helped them. If something needed doing, you did it. But these are tough economic times. If a person can work at McDonalds for more money and more hours than they can get driving a school bus, they may financially not have a choice. Bus drivers do not owe parents and students anything. If the wage is not fair, the job is not worth it. If they won’t do it for “mills on the penny”, that is their right in a free society. 

So what do we want? Do we want to hire any person who’s willing to work for insulting money, and put them behind the wheel of a bus, with your child’s life in their hands? Or should we demand that education money be distributed fairly, with bus drivers getting their fair share of the pie? If we want to hire people we can trust with our children’s lives, it’s time to give bus drivers the slice they deserve. 

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