Parents in Utica may have to wait until Thanksgiving for the resolution of transportation issues with the Utica City School District.

National Express spokesperson Anna Lam answered questions from WIBX pertaining to the shortage of bus drivers.  The shortage has been described as "dire" by many in the district.  National Express is the parent company of Durham School Services, the company that has served the district since July.  Parents have complained that students are not picked up for hours, arriving to school well after the school day has started and then arriving home after 5:00pm, often in the dark.

Asked what the company plans to do to resolve the issue, Lam said, "We continue to diligently recruit for drivers and have been aggressive in our (recruitment) effort.  We use multiple avenues including print, social media, electronic ads, TV, radio, and billboards."

In May National Express Chief Operating Officer Liz Sanchez was quoted as saying that the company had "revved up our driver recruitment efforts and continue to do so to ensure all our customers are well looked after."  WIBX asked the company how it would respond to parents in the Utica City School District who do not feel as though they are "well looked after" this school year.  Lam says, "Our team has worked tirelessly and around the clock to recruit new drivers.  We currently have over 50 candidates in our pipeline training to be drivers for the Utica City School District."

Was National Express unprepared - as many companies were - for the COVID crisis?  In an e-mail Lam said, "In the beginning, we started our recruiting efforts early and had offers out to enough drivers to cover our routes plus [enough to] have spare drivers.  Unfortunately, due to the extension of unemployment benefits into September, retirement, health concerns related to the pandemic, and competitors raising their hourly rates to match ours, our numbers dropped drastically in August.  Additionally, daily and weekly impacts on COVID cases (have) continued to reduce our daily workforce."

Lam says that National Express is working to resolve the shortage of Durham Student Services drivers.  That resolution, however, may not come quickly enough for parents.  Says Lam, "We are working toward getting to a more manageable level by Thanksgiving, with additional drivers being added by the end of the year to help to reduce delayed routes."

While COVID is being blamed for unprecedented crises faced by many industries, this specific challenge is particularly hard on parents of students in Utica.  While National Express continues to work on the issue in what they consider a "diligent" manner, parents in the meantime are left to think about the company's promises when Durham Student Services was originally awarded the UCSD contract.

An in-person interview request from WIBX was denied by the company, which would only answer questions via e-mail.  On the e-mail letterhead National Express lists its company's values as "Safety. People. Customer. Community. Excellence."

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