Amid labor shortages and supply chain issues, Connecticut seeks 140 snowplow drivers
It's difficult enough for public works departments and snowplow companies to predict how much manpower and how much road salt will be needed in any given winter.
But the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic are bringing additional challenges this winter: State departments of transportation are grappling with a shortage of snowplow drivers, supply chain issues are making it difficult to get trucks and parts, and fuel costs are up.
Local municipal public works directors say they're in good shape with staffing and salt supply, but the Connecticut Department of Transportation is looking to hire almost 140 more drivers, and one business owner whose company does snow removal said he cut back on customers in response to supply issues.
The state DOT has a 13% driver shortage with its 888 drivers, spokesperson Kafi Rouse said in an email Friday. She said the department is "laser focused on filling our ranks and actively recruiting talent" to fill nearly 140 vacant driver and snow-ice positions. She said this time last year, DOT had 894 drivers, an 11% shortage, with 113 vacant positions.
Rouse said some of the reasons for the shortage are an influx of retirements and a shortage of qualified applicants with a commercial driver's license.
Asked why DOT is having a tougher time finding drivers than municipal public works departments, Rouse said the hourly pay generally is lower and scheduling can be more demanding.
The public works directors for New London, Norwich, Town of Groton and City of Groton all said they have enough snowplow drivers.
Greg Hanover, public works director for the Town of Groton, said they're "short one position now, but that's not going to be an issue for plowing. We've had some turnover, but we've been able to fill positions fairly quickly."
Joe Bragaw, director of public works in East Lyme, said that town is still looking for people, "so we still aren't fully staffed, but we are staffed so if storms came now, we have all the plow routes covered." He added there's "not a lot of buffer."
New London has a crew of seven people in the highway department and they take the lead in weather events, said Brian Sear, city director of public works. But if a storm is particularly bad, people from the parks and building departments can work.
In Norwich, public works director Patrick McLaughlin said there's a contingency that Norwich Public Utilities drivers can help if there's a shortage or people are out sick.
The public works directors for New London and the Town of Groton both noted they use the Capitol Region Purchasing Council to get salt.
Sear said the price this year is $76 a ton, up from $68 a ton last year, but it fluctuates and was $85 a ton in 2015. New London contracts every year for 2,000 tons, which doesn't come all at once, and he said the city has about 250 tons left from last year.
Hanover said public works filled up the salt shed in Groton at the end of last year, and McLaughlin said Norwich has enough salt "for the whole winter already on-hand, because we have a lot of storage." The salt sheds for East Lyme and the City of Groton are also full.
Bragaw said it's good East Lyme already has at least half its annual supply of salt, because the cost has gone up more than expected. He's also trying to stay on top of supply chain issues with parts.
"We really try to get ahead of it, and so probably about three months ago, in the heat of the summer, we were ordering plow blades and parts just so we wouldn't be running into this," he said. He also said East Lyme is locked into a contract with great rates on fuel, but he's bracing for much higher costs after the contract expires June 30.
Sear said New London is lucky to be in good shape with big trucks, as they are fairly new, but the city has a couple small trucks on order that are six or eight months out.
McLaughlin said Norwich ordered truck parts ahead of time but certain parts could be difficult to get as time goes on, such as hydraulic hose fittings and oil filters.
William Robarge, public works director for the City of Groton, said new plow trucks are 18 months to three years out.
He said he has to consider, "Where is my fleet going to be a year from now? And you need to make that plan and build that into your budget even sooner. It's tricky. The fleet and the supplies, you really need to stay on top of it."
But Robarge said across the board, departments keep an extra vehicle in the queue. He also said he has to think ahead about people retiring — if he knows someone is leaving in January 2023, he'll start looking for a replacement six months in advance.
Factoring in uncertainty
Kurt Hayes, owner of Hayes Services LLC in East Lyme, said he's definitely seeing some supply shortages in parts for snowplows. As a result, he reduced his customer list about 40% and doubled up on equipment, in case something breaks.
Rick Whittle, owner of Allied Snow Plowing Removal in Mystic, said labor shortages usually aren't a big problem because he gets employees of construction companies that don't work in the winter.
But he has found salt prices are up about 30% and fuel prices have doubled. On top of that, he now has to get salt out of Providence, since DRVN Enterprises ceased operations in New London last year after being forced out of State Pier due to the redevelopment for offshore wind.
The other option besides Providence is Gateway Terminal in New Haven. Gateway's primary business model is to handle commodities — such as salt — on behalf of importers, and it doesn't sell directly to the state DOT and usually not to municipalities, but it does sell salt to private contractors.
Gateway said in a statement, "Our inventories are at levels commensurate with prior years and price increases are a direct result of the year-over-year increase in shipping and fuel costs."
Whittle said his customers include the Backus Hospital in Norwich, the Coast Guard Academy and courthouses in New London, and state-run group homes. He's increased his prices about 10%-15%, which is not enough to recoup the added costs of doing business.
He said his company has about 50 of its own trucks and hires about 50 subcontractors.
"It's not like you're making sneakers and everybody knows how many pairs you need," Whittle said. "Sometimes it can snow three times in a week, so it's unpredictable to everyone involved, from the salt guy to the plow guy to everyone. That's what makes it hard."