Salem-Keizer bus driver Alan Booth checks his bus' emergency exits before setting off to pick up his first student on a November morning in 2018. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Salem-Keizer bus drivers will earn extra stipends during their first year on the job under a new agreement between the school district and the union which represents transportation workers.

The agreement, announced Tuesday, also offers more frequent bonuses to all transportation department workers, who include bus drivers as well as mechanics, dispatchers, routers and trainers.

New drivers hired on or after July 1 will earn between $500 and $1,000 after 90 days of route-driving, with additional bonuses at six months and one year of employment. District staff can also earn referral bonuses of $500 for recruiting new drivers once those drivers pass a probationary period.

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Previously, transportation employees got a one-time bonus of 2% of their salary after 10 years of employment with the district. Now, they'll be eligible for a $500 stipend at three and six years as well, and $750 after 10. Employees will also get bonuses at 15, 20 and 25 years.

Peggy Stock, the district's director of employee and labor relations, explained the new agreement at a transportation staff meeting Tuesday.

"Wow," was the response from many in the room.

It's a bid to fill open jobs at a time when Salem-Keizer is expanding its transportation department.

Rita Glass, president of the Association of Salem-Keizer Education Support Professionals, said the goal was to recruit new drivers while ensuring longtime employees got some benefit too.

"We have always felt that we needed to do something different," she said.

This school year's budget included 12 additional drivers because of changes to school boundaries. The need for drivers is also growing because more district students are homeless or in foster care and require special transportation, transportation director Michael Shields said.

READ: Growing number of homeless Salem students poses transportation challenges

Salem-Keizer employs about 260 bus drivers, but is nearly always short of full staffing, Shields said. That's common in districts across the U.S., which struggle to fill part-time roles in a strong economy.

It's typical to begin the year needing about five or 10 more drivers, Shields said. This year's staff expansion means the district is 21 people short, though about 20 applications received in August still need to be processed.

Turnover is also high: About 45 drivers leave the district during a typical year.

District administrators began discussing the changes with union leaders early this year, Shields said. They reached an agreement Aug. 29.

"Our conversations were long and hard," Glass told employees Tuesday.

The incentives will be in effect for one year, after which administrators and union leaders will evaluate how the program worked.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: 503-575-1241, rachel@salemreporter.com