The term “essential worker” has taken on significant meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now state officials are challenged by a shortage of the type of worker especially essential after snow falls — snowplow drivers.
In fact, the Missouri Department of Transportation is short hundreds of snowplow drivers and put out a call for job applicants in September.
Jerry Rice has been plowing snow off Boone County roads for two years. Outside the county road and bridge department building along U.S. 63, he explains how preparing the equipment is a complicated, yet essential part of the job.
“You don't just dress the truck out in five minutes and be out," said Rice. "If everybody works together 20 minutes a truck on the small ones, probably 45 on the bigger ones.”
Drivers meet at the building at the onset of a storm to help each other ready the trucks with the blade, chains and salt, then hit the road.
“We're ahead of some storms. (Others) you're behind before you can get your blade on your truck. And in some, you stay behind,” said Rice.
County snow plow operators work up to 12-hours shifts until the road conditions are passable. Storms can mean long and unconventional hours for them.
“I've been in as early as 4 a.m., and I've been here as late as 2 a.m.,” said Rice.
Rice said a lot of people don’t understand the unique challenges of the job.
“You're not just driving a truck; you're not just plowing snow; you're not just trying to make decisions,” said Rice.
“You're dealing with people that are in a hurry, that are on their phones, that aren't thinking about what they're doing. And it's stressful if you let it get to you.”
Drivers like Rice are becoming harder to come by, at the city, county and state levels:
- The city of Columbia has 37 drivers, but is hoping to fill eight more positions.
- Boone County has 48 staff members who respond to snow storms and is looking to fill two positions.
- MODOT, which lacked the appropriate number of snowplow operators last year during the pandemic, has around 100 less drivers this year statewide.
Todd Miller, maintenance liaison engineer with MoDOT, says the state is doing what it can to ensure an appropriate storm response despite being down snowplow operators at this point.
“We're looking at some options and possibly moving staff around if it's a localized storm," said Miller. "But that's very rare here in Missouri, usually we have a statewide response."
“The main thing is, it's just gonna take a little longer to clear the roads than it has in the past,” he said.
A commercial driver’s license, or CDL, is required to operate most snowplow trucks.
“We continue to struggle as all of the industries currently are with the CDL licensing needs,” said MoDOT State Maintenance Director Natalie Roark.
MoDOT has 5,000 employees, and 3,000 of them require a CDL to do their jobs, according to MoDOT Communications Director Linda Wilson Horn.
The city of Columbia, county of Boone and state of Missouri all provide some level of support for job candidates needing CDL certification.
The city will reimburse new hires for the cost of the license.
Richard Stone, engineering and operations manager in the Columbia Public Works Department, said despite that assistance the city struggles to find applicants.
"There are fewer people that are going through the process of getting CDLs and retaining those CDLs. It's a little onerous to make sure that you keep your CDL in good standing," said Stone.
He said the city does the best it can with the resources it has to keep roads clear.
“Our response has to be predicated on how many folks we have and how much equipment we have to respond,” said Stone.
The Columbia City Council recently approved three additional positions for the Streets Division, which is primarily responsible for snow removal.
Columbia Public Works Department and Boone County Road and Bridge Department both use an all-hands-on-deck approach to snow removal. Officials in those agencies said they have the flexibility to move staff around to ensure enough are out clearing roads after a storm.
Greg Edington is director of the Boone County Road and Bridge Department, which is responsible for clearing approximately 370 miles of paved and 430 miles of gravel roads. He said they’re hoping to find candidates who are ready to do the job.
“Somebody that's not afraid to get out there and get into [the] elements and work,” said Edington.
He said thankfully they have pretty good employee retention. However, when it comes to the jobs like snowplow drivers that require a CDL, “if we have open positions, they tend to stay open for a while.”
Stone hopes to get the word out to young people about the benefits of working for the city.
“I think there is a growing desire for younger people to come into the workplace and recognize the benefits of gaining a CDL,” said Stone.
As for this winter, public workers will continue to take an emergency response to snow removal and prioritize safety. Each agency has a tiered plowing strategy.
“First priorities and second priorities tend to be around hospitals, schools, you know, major routes that emergency responders just have to have that access to be able to get up and down that roadway pretty much throughout the entire event,” said Stone.
Each agency focuses on plowing the roads their department maintains. However, Stone says the state, city and county work really well together and enact what’s called a “plow down” approach.
“It doesn't make any difference if we're on their street or they're on our street. As they're trying to get to one of their streets they'll have their plow down unless they have evidence or they know that a plow just went through there and has dropped salt,” said Stone.
Rice said snow plow operators generally tend to the same route year after year and that it's a tremendous help when it comes to knowing the amount of salt that’s needed, where freezing might be an issue and what the best time to get into certain subdivisions may be.
“It's better for everybody if you're in your same route and like it because you're already familiar, you know your ins and outs, where you want to go, where your bad spots are," said Rice. “You know where the schools are, if they're not canceled, and where your heavy traffic areas are that you want to hit before this or after this time.”
Rice said an ideal candidate for the open snow plow operator positions would be someone who likes public service, interacting with people and performing a range of duties.
“Nothing about this is very often the same thing. It don't repeat. You get a wide variety of what you do,” said Rice.
Regardless of staffing levels, snow maintenance professionals ask Missouri drivers to take it slow, keep their headlights on and if possible avoid going out during snow storms altogether.
“If you don't need to travel just don't. It really is, you know, from a safety perspective for everybody. We will get to the routes as quick as we can,” Stone.