Murmurs: Portland Schools Face Bus Driver Shortage

In other news: Vacancy rates shrink again.

School bus at Duniway Elementary. (Mick Hangland-Skill)

PORTLAND SCHOOLS FACE BUS DRIVER SHORTAGE: Portland Public Schools, which reopened Sept. 1, now faces an acute shortage of bus drivers—it’s down 86 drivers out of a total of about 330. The shortage stems from a difficult financial choice the district says it was forced to make when the pandemic hit in 2020. Schools were closed, the economy looked perilous, and Gov. Kate Brown forbade districts from laying off employees. So, in spring 2020, the district laid off 186 contract bus drivers represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757. Those drivers moved on as the demand for commercial drivers skyrocketed with the expansion of home delivery services and other economic shifts. PPS says about half the school districts in the country now face driver shortages they termed “severe” or “desperate” in a national survey. Meanwhile, PPS says the driver shortage poses major bus scheduling problems. “We have had, and will continue to have, some routes that have had to be canceled and others that have seen pickup or drop-off times altered,” the district says. The good news: 50 new drivers have begun training.

TEAMSTER SUES NABISCO SECURITY COMPANY: A Portland Teamster filed a federal lawsuit Sept. 14 alleging assault and battery by a guard working for Huffmaster Crisis Response, a Michigan-based strike staffing company hired to police the strike at the Nabisco bakery in Northeast Portland. Jesse Dreyer, a member of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 162, says a Huffmaster agent beat him while he was picketing with members of the local bakers’ union outside the Nabisco bakery on Monday morning. Video of the incident shows Dreyer being squashed up against a white van by a guard. The lawsuit alleges the officer was “forcefully pinning plaintiff against a van and physically striking plaintiff for several minutes.” Dreyer is seeking monetary damages in a jury trial. The lawsuit is the latest development in the escalating bakers’ union strike that began Aug. 10 and has garnered support from outside advocacy groups, politicians and even the Portland Thorns. Mondelez International, Nabisco’s parent company, hired Huffmaster to escort replacement workers across picket lines.

VACANCY RATE SHRINKS AGAIN: CoStar Market Analytics, a commercial real estate advisory service, released a memo Sept. 9 to its Portland clients detailing the stock of apartment buildings in the city and the pace of new construction. The findings were grim: Vacancies are rapidly declining, rent continues to rise, and development of new multifamily units is slowing. That slowdown, CoStar said, is partially due to skilled labor shortages and more expensive raw materials throughout the pandemic. But the company also blamed an inclusionary zoning policy adopted by the Portland City Council in 2017 that requires buildings over 20 units to reserve 20% of them for affordable housing. CoStar reported Portland had the fifth-fastest declining vacancy rate among the top 50 metro areas in the country, dropping to 4.7% in the third quarter of 2021—down from 6.9% in mid-2020. As Portland struggles with mounting homelessness, CoStar warns the worst is yet to come: “The market is currently in dire need of additional units to satisfy this ferocious leasing appetite and surging rent growth, but current statistics indicate construction activity is slowing and has been for some time.”

MEDIATION BETWEEN POLICE UNION AND CITY DRAGS INTO FIFTH SESSION: The Portland Police Association met with the city of Portland on Sept. 14 for their fifth mediation session to hash out a collective bargaining agreement. The first closed-door session was held over 45 days ago, on July 28, which puts the parties well past the minimum 15 calendar days required before either can declare an “impasse” and enter arbitration. In other words, if the city and the police union can’t resolve their differences, either may call in an arbitrator at any time to select the “last best offer” of only one party. As of Sept. 3, the city and union had reached tentative agreements on at least six articles of the contract, WW has learned through a public records request. The items they agree on include a new 90-day requirement for the city to investigate a PPA member’s complaint of underpayment, and changing the designation of PPA members from “special duty” to “association leave” when they are “attending union conventions or conferences” as “official delegates” of the police union.

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