Shortage of plow operators could mean slower clearing of roads in Pennsylvania, elsewhere | To analyse

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By Jenni Bergal

The country’s snowbelt faces a severe shortage of snowplow operators: Montana has lost half of its temporary snowplow operators this year. Kansas lacks nearly a third of all snow plow operators. Pennsylvania needs almost 60% more temporary drivers.

“Even though states want to do a good job, they may not be able to provide the level of service that they normally do,” said Rick Nelson, who coordinates the winter maintenance technical service program of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “They just don’t have a body to put in the plows.”

Many city and state transportation officials say during the pandemic they struggled to find workers due to a tight job market, uncompetitive wages, retirements and job changes. In at least one state, vaccination warrants prompted drivers to leave.

State and city transportation officials are competing with private industry to hire commercially licensed drivers, who have been in high demand during the pandemic and can make significantly more money driving trucks. In October, the American Trucking Associations, a trade group, estimated that the shortage of truck drivers had increased to 80,000, although some have disputed this digit.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced a plan to increase the number of truckers by helping states speed up commercial driver licensing, increase apprenticeships and recruit military veterans.

One barrier to hiring snow plow operators is the stress of the job. During the winter months, drivers are often on call around the clock and work 12-hour shifts in appalling weather conditions. Some states have faced a spike in retirements linked to a pandemic of state workers driving snowplows, officials say. Other workers quit to take other jobs.

Most state transportation services use permanent full-time employees to operate snowplows. These are usually road maintenance workers who do other tasks the rest of the year, such as fixing potholes and repairing guardrails.

Many states are increasing that staff by hiring temporary, seasonal workers during the winter because they have to manage 24-hour operations, according to Nelson. And a small number of states contract snow removal work to local governments or private contractors.

Some state and local governments offer incentives to attract more plow operators. In Colorado, the Department of Transportation increased its base salary for full-time employees from $ 3,265 to $ 3,347 per month and began paying a performance bonus of $ 2,000 for the snow season. Some cities in Massachusetts offered $ 115 to $ 200 per hour private snow plow operators who have a commercial driver’s license and own their own truck.

Snow plow operators must have a commercial license. This means that they must pass a specialized knowledge exam and roadside and drug tests.

Most training programs for snowplow operators in the state last two to three weeks, Nelson said. Students are given time in class and then are usually put on a plow with an experienced driver to try and familiarize themselves with the routes they will be responsible for.

“Driving a snow plow is more than just being a truck driver,” said Nelson. “They have to control the placement of salt and sand. They have to control the plow. It is very difficult to take someone with little or no experience, put them in a plow and let them go.

And when conditions get dangerous, regular truck drivers can get off the road, but snowplow drivers can’t.

“It’s hard work,” Nelson said. “It takes a special kind of person who wants to go out in a snowstorm and plow. “

Nelson said he was aware of more than a dozen state transportation departments that are facing operator shortages.

State and local transportation officials say they have seen declining demands for permanent and seasonal jobs for several years. But during the pandemic, the situation got darker.

The Washington State Department of Transportation, which normally has about 1,500 workers in winter operations, has lost about 220 people, both full-time and seasonal, spokeswoman Barbara LaBoe said. Higher salaries in the private sector and retirements, some of them triggered by a vaccination mandate, contributed to the problem: a total of 151 winter operations staff resigned, were made redundant or opted for retirement rather than getting vaccinated.

The combination of these issues could cause problems if there is a big storm.

“Some roads may not be cleared as quickly. If we have to close a pass, it may take longer to open it, ”she said. “If we start working around the clock, the crews get tired and we have to protect our workers as well as the drivers on the road. “

LaBoe also fears that it will take more time for state transportation workers to happen in the event of an accident, close lanes or divert traffic.

In Montana, where the temporary workforce of snow plow operators is about 50% below historic levels statewide, recruiting and hiring has been increasingly difficult, said Walt Kertula, chief of the bureau. equipment from the State Department of Transportation.

About 570 full-time maintenance workers plow snow in the winter, but the department needs to hire another 200 seasonal workers to support operations, Kertula said. There are about 100 of them. Both types of drivers start at $ 22.34 per hour and regular employees can drive up to $ 23.84 per hour.

As the state recruits using targeted ads, social media and job fairs, Kertula warns it will take longer to clear Montana’s roads than in the past.

It’s a similar situation in Kansas, which has a 30 percent statewide shortage of plow operators, according to Steve Hale, a spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation.

“In a number of areas of the state we are under-resourced,” Hale said. “We are going to clear the roads. But it’s going to take longer to get the job done.

Hale said the number one reason was wages. The state agency competes not only with the private sector, but also with cities that may pay more for similar positions.

The department was social media advertising and job boards. In Wichita, he used digital billboards to try to attract seasonal drivers.

Officials have also started offering more money (albeit without benefits) to temporary seasonal workers than they pay people starting out as full-time equipment operators. Seasonal workers pay $ 19.65 an hour or $ 25 an hour, depending on the job, Hale said.

In Pennsylvania, hiring temporary snow plow operators has been a bigger challenge this year, said Mike Keizer, the state’s transportation department’s acting assistant secretary for highway administration.

The department has only 41% of the temporary snowplow operators it needs to supplement its full-time staff, Keizer said. This is more of a problem in urban areas than in rural areas due to competition from overnight trucking companies such as FedEx and UPS.

“The pandemic just took things to another level,” Keizer said. “The whole country is focused on supply chain issues, deliveries. Now is the right time to be a truck driver.

In his more than 30 years of transportation work in Colorado, Mike Somsen said he’s never seen so badly the shortage of candidates to drive snowplows. In Durango, where he works as a street superintendent, five of the 14 positions are vacant.

The city plans to offer incentives such as snow removal bonuses at the end of the year. “Holding a carrot over there doesn’t work,” Somsen said. “We need to dip the carrot in the icing now.”

Jenni Bergal is a writer for Stateline.org, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where this story first appeared.

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