It’s hard enough for public works departments and snow plow companies to predict how much labor and road salt will be needed in any given winter.
But the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic pose additional challenges this winter: State transportation departments grapple with a shortage of snowplow drivers, supply chain issues make it difficult to obtain trucks and parts, and fuel costs are on the rise.
Local municipal public works managers say they are in good shape with staff and the salt supply, but the Connecticut Department of Transportation is looking to hire nearly 140 additional drivers, and a business owner whose snow removal company said it had reduced the number of customers in response. supply issues.
The DOT state has a 13% driver shortage with its 888 drivers, spokesman Kafi Rouse said in an email on Friday. She said the department was “laser-focused on filling our ranks and actively recruiting talent” to fill nearly 140 vacant driver and ice storm positions. She said that around the same time last year, the 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 commercial driver’s licenses.
When asked why the DOT has a harder time finding drivers than municipal public works departments, Rouse said hourly wages are generally lower and schedules can be more demanding.
Public works managers from New London, Norwich, Town of Groton and City of Groton all said they had enough snow plow operators.
Greg Hanover, city of Groton public works manager, said they were “missing a job now, but plowing won’t be a problem.” We’ve had some turnover, but we’ve been able to fill the positions fairly quickly. “
Joe Bragaw, director of public works at East Lyme, said the town is still looking for people, “so we still don’t have a full staff, but we are staffed, so if storms hit now, we have all the plow paths covered “. He added that there was “not a lot of buffer.”
New London has a team of seven in the highways department and they take the lead in weather events, said Brian Sear, the city’s public works manager. But if a storm is particularly severe, people in parks and construction departments can work.
In Norwich, Public Works Director Patrick McLaughlin said there is a possibility that Norwich Public Utilities drivers can help with shortages or sick people.
Both New London and Town of Groton public works managers said they were using the Capitol Area Purchasing Council to obtain salt.
Sear said the price this year is $ 76 per tonne, up from $ 68 per tonne last year, but it fluctuates and was $ 85 per tonne in 2015. Each year, new contracts in London for 2,000 tonnes , which doesn’t come all at once, and he said the city has about 250 tonnes left over from last year.
Hanover said Public Works filled the Groton salt shed late last year, and McLaughlin said Norwich already had enough salt “for the whole winter because we have a lot of storage.” The salt flats of East Lyme and the town of Groton are also full.
Bragaw said it’s good that East Lyme already has at least half of its annual salt supply, as the cost has risen more than expected. He also tries to stay on top of supply chain issues with parts.
“We’re really trying to move forward, and probably about three months ago, in the heat of summer, we were ordering blades and plow parts just so we didn’t run into that,” he said. he declares. He also said East Lyme is locked into a contract with low fuel prices, but is bracing for much higher costs after the contract expires on June 30.
Sear said New London is lucky to be in good shape with big trucks, as they’re fairly new, but the city has a few small trucks on order that are six or eight months old.
McLaughlin said Norwich ordered truck parts in advance, but some parts could be difficult to obtain over time, such as hydraulic hose fittings and oil filters.
William Robarge, director of public works for the town of Groton, said the new plow trucks are expected to come out from 18 months to three years.
He said he had to ask himself, “Where will my fleet be in a year from now?” And you need to develop that plan and make it part of your budget even earlier. It’s delicate. Fleet and supplies, you really have to stay on top of that. “
But Robarge said at all levels, departments are keeping an extra vehicle in the queue. He also said he needs to anticipate retirements – if he knows someone is leaving in January 2023, he will start looking for a replacement six months in advance.
Taking into account uncertainty
Kurt Hayes, owner of Hayes Services LLC in East Lyme, said he’s certainly seeing parts supply shortages for the snow plows. As a result, he reduced his customer list by around 40% and doubled his equipment, in case something broke.
Rick Whittle, owner of Allied Snow Plowing Removal at Mystic, said labor shortages aren’t usually a big deal as he hires construction company employees who don’t work in the winter.
But he found that salt prices have increased by around 30% and fuel prices have doubled. On top of that, he now has to mine salt from Providence, as DRVN Enterprises went out of business in New London last year after being forced out of State Pier due to the redevelopment of the offshore wind farm.
The other option besides Providence is Gateway Terminal in New Haven. Gateway’s primary business model is to manage commodities – like salt – on behalf of importers, and it doesn’t sell directly to state DOT and usually not to municipalities, but it does sell salt to private contractors.
Gateway said in a statement, “Our inventories are at comparable levels to previous years and the price increases are a direct result of the year-over-year increase in shipping and fuel costs. “
Whittle said his clients included Backus Hospital in Norwich, the Coast Guard Academy and courthouses in New London, as well as state-run group homes. It has increased its prices by around 10-15%, which is not enough to recoup the additional costs of doing business.
He said his company has around 50 of its own trucks and hires around 50 subcontractors.
“It’s not like you’re making sneakers and everyone knows how many pairs you need,” Whittle said. “Sometimes it can snow three times a week, so it’s unpredictable for everyone involved, from the salt guy to the plow guy to everyone. That’s what makes it difficult.”