VACATION

Worker shortages put Maine plowing operations between a rock and a snowbank

A snowplow clears a stretch of Alfred Road in Kennebunk during the nor’easter on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maine is sure to get more snow in the coming months. It’s far from certain, however, whether there will be enough drivers to plow the state’s roads, driveways and parking lots.

Landscaping companies, which handle most residential and private-property plowing in the state, say it’s harder to find people to get behind the wheel of a plow truck. The Department of Transportation also hasn’t been able to hire enough workers to clear the 8,300 lane-miles of state roads and highways in Maine.

The department will step up advertising on social media this winter in an effort to add staff, department spokesman Paul Merrill said Monday. But the agency still worries about plowing for major storms.

Merrill said the department has about 400 trucks and 500 people for plowing in the winter. But that’s 20% below the planned staffing level. During the rest of the year, the workers’ tasks include road repair, striping and other maintenance. When snow flies, the workers fire up the familiar orange trucks and set out to clear roads most drivers are striving to avoid.

At 500 people, “we’re generally OK for most storms – we were fine for last weekend’s storm,” he said, referring to the nor’easter that most of Maine early Saturday. But the current workforce isn’t enough for a blizzard or a storm that drops snow over two or three days.

In those cases, “we may be in a situation where we have to move pieces around or the public might see service levels reduced,” Merrill said. The department might use workers who have truck licenses but don’t normally drive a plow on the job. That’s not preferred, he said, because putting them on the road means one less person handling other tasks. If a mechanic is sent out to plow, maintenance work might get backed up.

The department is offering enticements to draw more workers, including sign-on bonuses for those who stick with the job and generous vacation and compensatory time, Merrill said. The state will even train workers to get their truck licenses, he said. Even so, it’s been difficult attracting applicants.

“We know we’re not alone” as far as attracting workers, he said.

PRIVATE PAIN

The approach of winter has been good news for some private enterprises. But from suburban driveways to large commercial parking lots, the shortage of plow drivers is also being felt far from state roadways.

Chris Macleod, owner of CSM Landscaping, fixes a hydraulic line on a piece of snow-clearing equipment Monday. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Scott Dugas, who owns a trucking and excavating company in Yarmouth, said he’s losing longtime employees to retirement and that it’s tough to find enough drivers to plow in the winter.

In the last few years, he’s had to turn down 30 to 40 potential new customers every winter because he doesn’t have enough drivers to clear the driveways and lots that he already has under contract in Portland’s northern suburbs. His company has about 20 drivers and a few others who are on call in case of a particularly heavy snowstorm.

But Dugas said his workers are getting older and ending their careers, leaving him scrambling to take care of customers. Others in the plowing business tell him they are grappling with the same challenges, Dugas said.

“We’re fortunate with the guys we’ve got,” he said.

Some companies are completely changing their business model because of the labor shortage and rising costs.

Chris Macleod of CSM Landscaping said he told his customers in October that he was switching from billing for each snow event to a retainer system, where customers pay a fixed amount up front each winter. Macleod is now charging $250 a month from November to March, whether it snows or not.

Macleod said most of his 135 or so customers opted to stick with him rather than try to find someone who would charge by the storm.

A plow truck spreads sand and salt on Shaker Hill Road in Alfred where a car went off the road and landed on its side during the nor’easter on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“I’ve been considering doing it for several years now and knew it would cause some waves,” he said. “We have long-term customers and most stayed on. We did lose a few, but for the most part, everybody understood.”

Now that the new pricing structure is in place, “everybody seems happy with it,” Macleod said. It means he can keep his workers on at a time when snowstorms seem to be less frequent.

“We weren’t plowing enough storms to make it worthwhile,” he said. “It wasn’t sustainable.”


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