Snowplow driver shortage could mean slower road clearing

By: - January 5, 2022 6:46 am
Snowplow tossing huge piles of snow into the air and off the road

Snowplow | Photo by Bernd Dittrich via Unsplash

The nation’s snow belt is facing a severe snowplow driver shortage: Montana is down half its temporary snowplow drivers this year. Kansas is missing nearly a third of all snowplow operators. Pennsylvania needs almost 60% more temporary drivers.

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

Many city and state transportation officials say that during the pandemic, they’ve been having a tough time finding workers because of a tight labor market, uncompetitive salaries, retirements and job switches. In at least one state, vaccine mandates have prompted drivers to leave.

State and city transportation officials are competing with private industry to hire drivers with commercial licenses, who have been in high demand during the pandemic and can make a lot more money driving trucks. In October, the American Trucking Associations, a trade group, estimated that the truck driver shortage had risen to 80,000, though some have disputed that figure.

The Biden administration on Thursday announced a plan to boost the number of truckers by helping states expedite the issuance of commercial driver’s licenses, increase apprenticeships and recruit military veterans.

One impediment to hiring snowplow drivers is the stress of the job. During the winter months, drivers often are on call 24 hours a day, and work 12-hour shifts under terrible weather conditions. Some states have been dealing with a pandemic-related spike in retirements of state employees who operate snowplows, officials say. Other workers have quit to take different jobs.

Most state transportation departments use permanent, full-time employees to operate snowplows. They typically are highway maintenance workers who perform other tasks the rest of the year, such as patching potholes and repairing guardrails.

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

Some state and local governments are offering incentives to attract more snowplow operators. In Colorado, the Department of Transportation bumped up its base pay for full-time employees from $3,265 to $3,347 a month and started giving a $2,000 snow season performance bonus. Some cities in Massachusetts have offered $115 to $200 an hour to private snowplow drivers who have a commercial driver’s license and own their own trucks.

Snowplow operators must have a commercial license. That means they need to pass a specialized knowledge exam and road and drug tests.

Most state snowplow operator training programs run for two to three weeks, Nelson said. Students get classroom time and then typically are put in a plow with a seasoned driver to try to get familiar with the routes for which they’ll be responsible.

“Driving a snowplow is a bit more than just being a truck driver,” Nelson said. “They have to control putting salt and sand down. They have to control the plow. It’s very difficult to take someone with little to no experience and put them in a plow and turn them loose.”

And when conditions get treacherous, regular truck drivers can pull off the road, but not snowplow drivers.

“It’s a difficult job,” Nelson said. “It takes a special kind of person who wants to go out in a blizzard and plow.”

Nelson said he is aware of more than a dozen state departments of transportation that are dealing with operator shortages.

State and local transportation officials say they’ve been seeing a decline in applications for both permanent and seasonal jobs for several years. But during the pandemic, the situation has gotten bleaker.

The Washington State Department of Transportation, which normally has about 1,500 winter operations workers, is down about 220 people, both full-time and seasonal, spokesperson Barbara LaBoe said. Higher wages in the private sector and retirements, including some prompted by a vaccine mandate, have contributed to the problem: A total of 151 winter operations staffers quit, were fired or chose retirement rather than get vaccinated.

The combination of these issues could spell trouble if there is a big storm.

“Some roads may not be plowed as quickly. If we have to close a pass, it may take longer to open it,” she said. “If we start working 24-hour shifts, crews get tired, and we need to protect our workers as well as the drivers on the road.”

LaBoe also worries that it could take longer for state transportation workers to get to a crash to shut down lanes or divert traffic.

In Montana, where temporary snowplow driver staffing is about 50% lower statewide than historical levels, recruitment and hiring have been increasingly difficult, said Walt Kertula, equipment bureau chief for the state Department of Transportation.

About 570 full-time maintenance employees plow snow in the winter, but the department needs to hire another 200 seasonal workers to support the operations, Kertula said. It has about 100. Both types of drivers start at $22.34 an hour, and permanent employees can advance up to $23.84 an hour.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

While the state is recruiting by using targeted ads, social media and career fairs, Kertula warns that it’s going to take longer to clear Montana roads than it has in the past.

It’s a similar situation in Kansas, which is lacking 30% of snowplow operators statewide, according to Steve Hale, a spokesperson for the state Department of Transportation.

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

Hale said the number one reason is salaries. The state agency is competing not only with the private sector but also with cities that may be paying more for similar positions.

The department has been advertising on social media and job boards. In Wichita, it’s used digital billboards to try to attract seasonal drivers.

Officials also began offering more money (albeit with no benefits) to seasonal temporary workers than what they pay people starting out as full-time equipment operators. Seasonal workers’ pay is either $19.65 an hour or $25 an hour, depending on the duties, Hale said.

In Pennsylvania, hiring temporary snowplow operators has been a bigger challenge this year, said Mike Keiser, the state transportation department’s acting deputy secretary for highway administration.

The department has only 41% of the temporary snowplow operators it needs to supplement its full-time staff, Keiser said. It’s more of a problem in urban areas than rural ones because of the competition with overnight trucking businesses such as FedEx and UPS.

“The pandemic has just escalated things another notch,” Keiser said. “The whole country is focused on supply chain issues, deliveries. It’s a good time to be a truck driver.”

In his more than 30 years of working in transportation in Colorado, Mike Somsen said he’s never seen it so bad when it comes to a lack of applicants to drive snowplows. In Durango, where he works as streets superintendent, five of 14 positions are unfilled.

The city is considering offering incentives such as snowplowing bonuses at the end of the year. “Holding a carrot out there isn’t working,” Somsen said. “We have to dip the carrot in icing right now.”

This story is by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jenni Bergal
Jenni Bergal

Jenni Bergal is a veteran journalist who covers transportation, infrastructure, and cybersecurity for Stateline. She has been a reporter at Kaiser Health News, the Center for Public Integrity and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and was supervising senior editor of “Weekend Edition” at NPR. Bergal has spent much of her career doing investigative reporting. She has won numerous national awards, including the Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism, the National Press Club Consumer Journalism Award and the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Reporting and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. She is a co-author of the book, City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina.

MORE FROM AUTHOR