As storms sweep across the United States, officials are having to contend with twin challenges 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, the owner of a towing company in Chelmsford, Mass., who is trying to fill four positions for plow drivers. “As far as hiring help, I can’t get any, and the price of fuel has jumped up. It has gone up so tremendously it affects all the overhead.”
He added, “Right now, to get tow drivers, we have to pay more money, but we can’t charge more money.”
Snowplow drivers in the United States are usually either permanent employees in state transportation departments, state seasonal hires, or tow truck drivers who also clear snow for private companies that, like Mr. Ferreira’s, have government contracts.
But a broad upheaval in the U.S. labor force since the coronavirus pandemic began in 2020 has trickled down to the transportation sector, 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 trade group, there was a record shortage of about 80,000 commercial drivers moving freight last year, partly because drivers had quit or retired, or commercial driving license schools had shut down as a result of the pandemic.
As motor vehicle departments also closed or slowed down, a backlog narrowed the pool of workers with commercial driver’s licenses, and fewer of them chose to use those licenses for snow plowing work, Sean McNally, a spokesman for the group, said.
Snowplow hiring is “a major challenge nationwide” because freight haulers and package-delivery companies are also vying for commercial drivers, said Kris Rietmann Abrudan, communications director for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“We are 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 applicants for commercial driver’s licenses, such as Colorado and Idaho, have seen the same drivers go off 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 annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, according to Mr. Nelson, who is attending the event.
“Plowing snow is a difficult job,” he said. “When the weather gets tough, we ask our snowplow drivers to be out there in terrible conditions in the middle of the night.”
Cities and states are trying to adapt to the hiring challenge by raising pay, offering bonuses and training, shuffling employee shifts and putting some routes on the back burner to ease the workload.
For the 2021-22 winter season, Colorado began offering bonuses of about $2,000 and raised annual salaries several thousand dollars to about $40,000 for road-maintenance workers who operate snowplows, said Shoshana M. Lew, executive director of the state’s Department of Transportation. The “statewide shortage” forced authorities in Jefferson County to redirect plows from less-traveled roads to more heavily trafficked ones, the county said.
In Idaho, the state has scheduled courses in three cities for applicants to earn commercial driver’s licenses. “We are seeing, just like everybody else, that hiring is a problem trying to get a hold of people with a C.D.L.,” said Justin Smith, a spokesman for the Idaho Transportation Department.
The challenges of getting drivers behind plows coincided with unruly storms that pummeled the United States in recent weeks. More heavy snow is expected to fall in the Midwest and mountain states this week before it moves east, forecasters say.
Late last month, record-setting snowfall and arctic temperatures dropped across the Sierra Nevada and Pacific Northwest, and East Coast states dug out of a heavy snowfall last week in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, where more than 15 inches of snow blanketed parts 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 an hour for government contracts this season. Still, the town had to put employees from the city’s waste station behind the wheel of snowplows, and it told residents there would be delays in clearing the roads after a Jan. 7 storm.
In Iowa, the onset of winter came late, so workers stayed in farm or construction jobs for a longer period instead of seeking seasonal snowplow jobs, according to Craig Bargfrede, the Iowa Department of Transportation’s winter operations administrator. By Wednesday, the department had only about 420 of its needed 633 seasonal positions filled.
“We are running a little bit behind,” he said.