According to industry experts, driving a snow plow is a tough sell to prospective employees. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
Jan. 19 (UPI) -- State and local transportation departments across the United States are struggling to keep roads clear of snow this winter, as staffing shortages and organizational red tape make it harder to hire and retain plow drivers.
Montana is missing half of its temporary drivers this year. As of early December, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation had hired just 40 percent of its usual seasonal workers. And in Kansas City, Mo., transportation officials are scrambling to onboard new plow drivers to fill a 30 percent gap in the workforce.
According to industry experts, driving a snow plow is a tough sell to prospective employees. That's especially true during the ongoing labor shortage -- public agencies are competing with freight haulers and package-delivery services for drivers with commercial licenses.
Those private companies are also desperate for drivers, to the point where a new federal pilot program announced earlier this week would allow them to hire truckers as young as 18.
Public agencies face an additional disadvantage in hiring full-time road workers because they aren't as nimble as private companies, Barbara LaBoe, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Transportation, told Insider on Tuesday. Starting salaries for WSDOT highway-maintenance workers max out at $27.90 an hour.
The department has considered raising wages, LaBoe said, but "can't move as quickly as private industry in matters such as this."
The agency is around 10 percent below its usual winter staffing operations, LaBoe added. The state said the staff shortages didn't cause any road closures.
Across the country, reports are surfacing of governments attempting to lure more private contractors to help clear their roads. One Massachusetts town is offering snowplow operators emergency rates of up to $135 an hour; another is extending wages of up to $310 an hour.
State departments are also looking for ways to boost retention. In Colorado, where the driver vacancy rate is hovering around 19%, the department of transportation is promising $2,000 performance-based "snow bonuses."
The shortage of snowplow drivers is widespread enough to merit a discussion at the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, D.C., this week.
"Plowing snow is a difficult job," Rick Nelson, a winter maintenance consultant for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said in the New York Times on Saturday. "When the weather gets tough, we ask our snowplow drivers to be out there in terrible conditions in the middle of the night."
WSDOT's shortage is also tangled up in the debate over vaccine mandates.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has required that all state employees be vaccinated against COVID-19, a move that drew criticism from Republican lawmakers. Kittitas County took the department to task for turning down its offer to help clear roads during the storm, reportedly because the county couldn't guarantee its workers were vaccinated, The Seattle Times reported. WSDOT disputes that account.
The state's transportation secretary, Roger Millar, also pushes back against the assertion that vaccine mandates are responsible for the shortage -- the department lost 151 employees when the mandate kicked in on Oct. 18, but it has since hired 200 more. He pointed to the multiple other states without vaccine requirements that are facing worse shortages.
"Yes, we do have a staffing issue," Millar said in a statement. "Yes, we do have a budget issue. But the mandate is really a part of the solution to the problem that is the COVID pandemic."