Desperately in demand this pandemic winter: snowplow operators

As storms rage across the United States, officials face double challenges this pandemic winter: too much snow and not enough drivers to get rid of it.

“I don’t know where everyone has gone with Covid and everything,” said Chris Ferreira, the owner of a towage company in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, which is trying to fill four shift driver positions. “As for hiring help, I can’t get one, and the price of fuel has skyrocketed. It has increased so much that it affects all overhead.”

He added: “To get tow drivers now, we have to pay more money, but we can’t ask for more money.”

Snowplow drivers in the United States are usually either permanent employees in state transportation departments, state seasonal workers, or tow truck drivers who also clear snow for private companies that, like Mr. Ferreira, have government contracts.

But a broad upheaval in the U.S. workforce since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 has trickled down to the transportation industry, creating shortages of snowplow operators, as well as city and school bus drivers, industry officials said in interviews this week.

According to the American Trucking Associations, an industry association, there was a record shortfall of about 80,000 commercial drivers carrying freight last year, in part because drivers had stopped or retired, or commercial driver’s licenses were closed due to the pandemic.

As motor vehicle divisions also closed or slowed down, a backlog narrowed the pool of employees with commercial driver licenses, and fewer of them chose to use those licenses for snowploughing, said Sean McNally, a spokesperson for the group.

Hiring snowplows is “a major challenge across the country” as freight carriers and parcel delivery companies also compete for commercial drivers, said Kris Rietmann Abrudan, communications director for the Washington State Department of Transportation.

“We’re all competing for essentially the same group of applicants,” she said.

According to Rick Nelson, a winter maintenance consultant for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, some states that have tried to address the shortages by training commercial driver’s license applicants, such as Colorado and Idaho, have seen the same drivers go off for jobs in the private sector, where salaries are not capped by the legislator.

Nelson, who is attending the event, said the issue of the shift driver shortage was discussed at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington this week.

“Ploughing snow is a difficult job,” he said. “When the weather turns bad, we ask our snowplow drivers to be outside in appalling conditions in the middle of the night.”

Cities and states are trying to adapt to the challenge of hiring by raising wages, offering bonuses and training, shifting shifts and putting some routes on the back burner to ease the workload.

For the 2021-2022 winter season, Colorado began offering bonuses of about $2,000 and increased annual salaries several thousand dollars to about $40,000 for road maintenance workers who operate snowploughs, said Shoshana M. Lew, executive director of the state’s Department of Transportation. . The “statewide deficit” forced authorities in Jefferson County to divert plows from less-traveled roads to more-congested roads, the county said.

In Idaho, the state has scheduled courses in three cities for applicants to earn commercial driver’s licenses. “We see, like everyone else, that hiring people is a problem getting to people with a CDL,” said Justin Smith, a spokesman for the Idaho Transportation Department.

The challenges of getting drivers behind the shifts have coincided with unruly storms that have ravaged the United States in recent weeks. More heavy snow is expected to fall in the Midwest and mountain states this week before moving east, forecasters say.

Record-breaking snowfall and arctic temperatures dropped in the Sierra Nevada and Pacific Northwest late last month, and eastern states dug out of heavy snow last week in the northeast and mid-Atlantic, where more than 15 inches of snow share. of Virginia, stranding hundreds of vehicles on Interstate 95 for up to 24 hours.

In Sandwich, Mass., private snowplow operators were offered $90 to $135 per hour on government contracts this season. Still, the city had to put workers at the city’s waste station behind the wheel of snowploughs, and it told residents there would be delays in clearing the roads after a January 7 storm.

Winter started late in Iowa, so workers stayed in farm or construction work for extended periods rather than seeking seasonal snowplow work, according to Craig Bargfrede, the winter operations manager for the Iowa Department of Transportation. By Wednesday, the department had only filled about 420 of the required 633 seasonal positions.

“We’re a little behind,” he said.