As storms begin, US states struggle to hire snow plow operators


A Washington Department of Transportation snow plow works an eastbound stretch of Interstate 90 on Thursday, December 9, 2021, as snow falls near Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state. More American drivers could find themselves stranded on snow-covered freeways or have their travel delayed this winter due to a shortage of snowplow operators, as some states struggle to find enough people willing to accept the jobs.

Ted S. Warren / AP

More American drivers could find themselves stranded on snow-covered freeways or have their trips delayed this winter due to a shortage of snowplow drivers – a reality that could hit homes on Friday as winter storms begin. to dump snow from the Pacific Northwest to the upper Great Lakes.

From Washington to Pennsylvania, including Montana and Wyoming in the Rocky Mountains, struggle to find enough people willing to take on the relatively low-paying jobs that require a commercial driver’s license and often involve working at irregular hours in dangerous conditions.

“We want the traveling public to understand why it might take longer this season to clear freeways during winter storms,” ​​said Jon Swartz, the maintenance administrator for the Montana Department of Transportation, who runs out of about 90 conductors. “Knowledge helps motorists plan ahead and adjust or even delay travel plans. “

Labor shortage and lingering concerns about the pandemic have prompted employers to scramble to find enough school bus drivers, waiters, cooks and even teachers. The shortage comes as the number of Americans claiming unemployment benefits fell last week to lowest level in 52 years and some are looking for a better work-life balance.

Several states are already feeling the tightening or could be soon: Heavy snowfall is expected in the coming days over large swathes of the country, including Utah and Colorado, where more than a foot (30 centimeters) is expected at higher altitudes. More than half a foot could drop in parts of Nebraska and Iowa. Parts of Nevada and New Mexico also expect winter storms.

State transportation departments say there are several reasons for the shortage of plow operators: record unemployment, an aging workforce, and increased demand for diesel mechanics and CDL drivers. in other industries. Private companies can also be more nimble – by raising wages and offering bonuses to drivers – than state agencies, which typically need legislative approval to change wages.

“Everyone is sort of competing for the same group of workers and private companies can often offer higher wages than the state government,” said Barbara LaBoe, spokesperson for the Department of Transportation of the United States. Washington State.

Along with the competitive market, LaBoe said Washington has also lost 151 winter operations workers who did not want to comply with the state’s mandate on the COVID-19 vaccine.

One of the main competitors from states looking for workers with commercial driver licenses are private trucking companies that have increased driver wages, in some cases multiple times this year, to fill their own shortages and meet their needs. to the growing demand for freight transport and a clear supply chain. bottlenecks.

The American Trucking Associations estimates that there will be a record shortage of just over 80,000 drivers this year, and that does not include the shortage of drivers for school buses, public transportation or snow plows. .

The ATA says the shortage has many roots, including many drivers approaching retirement age, the pandemic forcing some to leave the industry, and training schools producing fewer new drivers in 2020. D ‘ others may leave the industry because they don’t like being away from home while an increase in the number of states legalizing marijuana leads to more drivers unable to pass drug tests, according to the ATA.

Some states are willing to hire snow plow operators and pay for their CDL training, but those hires are unlikely to be ready to work this winter, officials said.

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Some snow plow operators work year round on road maintenance jobs, while seasonal workers are hired to fill extra shifts in the winter.

The shortage is leading states to plan to move mechanics and other full-time employees with a commercial driver’s license to plows, which can cause problems if a plow needs maintenance and the mechanic is driving.

Wyoming has priorities for which roads will be cleared first and for how many hours per day the snowplows will operate on each road. Interstate 80, the main east-west corridor through the southern part of the state, can be cleared 24 hours a day while snow removal stops on other roads, such as Interstates 90 and 25, between midnight and 4 a.m. Those guidelines may come into play more this year, said Luke Reiner, director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

In Washington, LaBoe said some roads and mountain passes will be closed longer than usual during and after major storms, and some roads may not receive the same level of service.

Brief or isolated storms won’t cause problems in most states, in part because departments can move conductors and equipment based on weather forecasts.

“If we have a series of storms over several days or if they hit the entire state at once, (the shortage) is going to become more evident because we don’t have such a deep shoal,” LaBoe said.

Snow made it difficult to drive on I-84 West outside of La Grande, Ore. On Thursday, December 9, 2021.

Snow made it difficult to drive on I-84 West outside of La Grande, Ore. On Thursday, December 9, 2021.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Washington is still short of around 150 seasonal and full-time workers, but things have improved since October when there were 300 workers short.

Even though states can hire drivers with commercial licenses, they must still train them to operate a snow plow and load the truck with salt and sand before learning a route.

“When you are clearing the road, you need to know where the bridge abutment is and where the expansion joints are so you don’t get caught with a plow,” LaBoe said.

Pennsylvania is short of 270 permanent positions and 560 temporary positions, but the Department of Transportation has said that does not mean the roads will be dangerous this winter.

“Our goal is to keep roads safe and passable rather than completely free of ice and snow,” said Alexis Campbell, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The roads will be clear once the snow stops, she said.

Ease of movement is important for businesses. Capitol Courier has contracts with deadlines to deliver electronic replacement parts from their warehouse in Helena, MT, to about 30 companies across the state as soon as they call.

“Roads are essential to what we do,” said Shawn White Wolf, Co-Director of Capitol Courier.

Snow plow operators are dedicated to their jobs and understand that their jobs are essential to the safety of the traveling public and emergency responders, said Rick Nelson, director of the winter maintenance engineering service program for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Yet he understands that it can be difficult to convince newcomers “to be out there in the worst conditions.”

Nelson said the scarcity means states will move their resources when they can and make sure the roads are cleared during peak demand periods while “you try to recruit, get out and beat the bushes and to convince people that jumping on a plow in the middle of Christmas night is a good career choice.


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