As storms sweep across the United States, officials face a dual challenge this pandemic winter: too much snow and not enough drivers to get rid of it.
“I don’t know where everybody’s gone, with Covid and everything,” said Chris Ferreira, owner of a towing business in Chelmsford, Mass., who is trying to fill four plow operator positions. “As far as hiring help, I don’t have any and the price of fuel has skyrocketed. It has increased so much that it affects all overheads.
He added, “Right now to get tow drivers we have to pay more money, but we can’t charge more money.”
Snow plow drivers in the United States are usually either permanent employees of the state transportation services, or seasonal employees of the state, or tow truck drivers who also clear snow for private companies which, like the one of Mr. Ferreira, have government contracts.
But a vast upheaval in the American workforce since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 has rippled through the transportation sector, creating shortages of snow plow operators as well as city bus drivers. and schools, industry officials said in interviews this week.
According to the American Trucking Associations, an industry trade group, there was a record shortage of about 80,000 commercial freight drivers last year, in part because drivers quit or retired, or that commercial driving license schools had closed as a result of the pandemic.
As motor vehicle departments also closed or slowed down, a backlog reduced the pool of workers with commercial driver’s licenses, and fewer opted to use those permits for snow removal work, Sean McNally said. , spokesperson for the group.
Hiring snow plows is “a major national challenge” as freight carriers and package delivery companies also compete for commercial drivers, said Kris Rietmann Abrudan, director of communications for the transportation department. of Washington State.
“We’re all competing for essentially the same pool of applicants,” she said.
According to Rick Nelson, winter maintenance consultant for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, some states that have tried to address shortages by training candidates for commercial driver’s licenses, such as Colorado and Idaho, have seen the same drivers leave. for jobs in the private sector, where salaries are not capped by legislatures.
The issue of plow driver shortages was discussed this week at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting in Washington, according to Nelson, who attends the event.
“Snow removal is hard work,” he said. “When the weather gets tough, we have our plow drivers out there in terrible conditions in the middle of the night.”
Cities and states are trying to adapt to the hiring challenge by raising wages, offering bonuses and training, rearranging employee shifts and putting some routes on hold to ease the workload. .
For the 2021-22 winter season, Colorado began offering bonuses of around $2,000 and raised annual salaries from several thousand dollars to around $40,000 for highway maintenance workers who use snow plows, said Shoshana M. Lew, executive director of the state Department of Transportation. The “statewide shortage” has forced Jefferson County officials to redirect plows from less traveled roads to busier ones, the county said.
In Idaho, the state has scheduled courses in three cities for candidates to obtain commercial driver’s licenses. “We find, like everyone else, that hiring is a problem trying to get our hands on people with a CDL,” said Justin Smith, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Transportation.
The challenges of having drivers behind plows have coincided with unruly storms that have battered 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 said.
Late last month, record snowfall and arctic temperatures fell in the Sierra Nevada and across Pacific Northwest and East Coast states carved out by heavy snowfall last week in the north east and mid-Atlantic, where more than 15 inches of snow blanketed parts of Virginia, pinning hundreds of vehicles on Interstate 95 for 24 hours.
In Sandwich, Mass., private snow plow operators have been offered $90 to $135 an hour for government contracts this season. Still, the city had to put workers from the city’s sewage treatment plant behind the wheel of snow plows, and it told residents there would be delays clearing roads after the Jan. 7 storm.
In Iowa, winter came late, so workers stayed longer in agricultural or construction jobs instead of seeking seasonal snowplow jobs, according to Craig Bargfrede, the department’s winter operations administrator. of Iowa Transportation. As of Wednesday, the department had filled only about 420 of its 633 needed seasonal positions.
“We’re a little behind,” he said.