Officials say they need about 150 bus drivers to cover all the routes and COVID-19 related absences.By Casey Albritton

HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. (CW44 News At 10) – Hillsborough County Schools is seeing the largest bus driver shortage it’s ever seen. Officials say they need about 150 bus drivers to cover all the routes and COVID-19 related absences.

At the Hillsborough County Schools Transportation Department, officials are now offering money to current bus drivers who get others hired, all in hopes of getting rid of the bus driver shortage.

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Jim Beekman, Department of Transportation Manager, says “I started in this business in 1983 and this is the worst I’ve ever experienced with the driver shortage.”

Otella Lowe, a bus driver with Hillsborough County Schools, says “The parents have to understand if we are going late, then they are just going to have to wait until we get there because the simple fact is traffic is horrendous. We are limited on backroads and access roads we can take.”

The Hillsborough County Department of Transportation is struggling to keep up, after many bus drivers left the business during the pandemic and more students returned to school this year compared to last year.

Malika Thompson-Sakes, another bus driver, says “It’s been difficult, not only am I a bus driver, I am a parent also.”

Thompson-Sakes says she understand parents and the district’s frustrations when it comes to the bus driver shortage.

“Sometimes he misses his first period class. He’s like ‘Mommy I’ve been out here for quite some time now’ and I said ‘Just hold on the bus is coming. Just hold tight,'” said Thompson-Sakes.

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Because of the bus shortage, drivers are having add multiple routes to their day and pick up and drop off times are not accurate. According to the district, 100 bus drivers are needed to cover all the routes, but 50 more are needed to cover when a bus driver gets sick with COVID-19 and needs to quarantine.

“We have to be here for the kids and at the end of the day, we’re here to transport the kids and get them home safely,” said Lowe.

If a current bus driver gets someone to become a bus driver, the district is offering the current employee up to $1,500 over the course of three years. District officials say they will also pay a person to go through the driver training.

“If you have a Florida driver’s license, we will get you that CDL and we will take you through those steps,” said Beekman.

Lowe says she loves her job and others will too.

“From the elementary kids, pre-K kids, high school kids, this is where it starts, so if you want to make an impact on kids lives, this is the job to be in,” said Lowe.

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On Saturday, transportation officials held a job fair.