Lack of seasonal employees will make it harder for ODOT crews to keep roads clear of snow, ice

Nov. 11—LA GRANDE — A labor shortage has Oregon Department of Transportation officials juggling schedules and resources in Eastern Oregon as the winter season's icy grip tightens.

The department's Eastern Oregon region, which is composed of Morrow, Umatilla, Union, Wallowa, Baker, Grant, Harney and Malheur counties, has 300 total positions. The region now has 38 vacancies, about 25 of which are permanent and seasonal road maintenance positions, according to Ken Patterson, the manager of ODOT's Area 5 region.

The vacancies mean some ODOT crews may have to do more with less as they work to keep Interstate 84 and state highways clear of snow and ice.

"We will do as much as we can with the people we have," Patterson said.

The employee shortage is linked to a falling number of seasonal workers, who are hired to work from November through April.

"Our No. 1 concern going into winter is seasonal labor," said Rich Lani, the manager of ODOT's District 12, which covers Umatilla and Morrow counties and the northern half of Union County.

Stricter regulations

ODOT's labor shortage is more difficult to address today than it was two years ago because of a new state regulation that makes the process of earning a commercial driver's license more time-consuming.

The additional regulations make it harder to find potential employees who are ready to begin driving snowplows and trucks. ODOT is hiring people without CDLs and then helping them earn the accreditation. However, a number of employees leave ODOT after receiving their CDLs because they are now able to land higher paying jobs elsewhere.

"Having a CDL gives you more options," explained Ace Clark, manager of ODOT's District 13, which includes all or portions of Union, Baker and Wallowa counties.

Filling holes

The seasonal employee situation is particularly dire at ODOT's Meacham maintenance station, where eight of its total of 27 positions are unfilled. Lani said it is hard to fill the Meacham positions because the community has limited housing for employees, forcing many working in Meacham to commute between either the La Grande area to the east or Pendleton area to the west. Both are at least 25 miles, a costly drive because of today's high gas prices.

Lani said that when fully staffed, his district would have as many as 72 employees after Nov. 1, but now has only 55.

The transportation department is taking a new step this year to keep as many of its winter positions filled as possible. The state is granting travel status to employees who come to Region 5 from outside Eastern Oregon to help with winter road work. Employees granted travel status have their meals and lodging expenses paid for, Patterson said. The move has so far drawn in at least two ODOT employees to work in the region.

Patterson, ODOT's Area 5 region manager, said it is only fair that travel status be granted to ODOT employees coming here from outside the region.

"They are stepping away from lives they have elsewhere," he said.

Another step the agency is taking involves maintaining its Fire and Ice program, a program that involves ODOT and the Oregon Department of Forestry. Employees in the program are guaranteed year-round work by fighting fires for the Oregon Department of Forestry in the summer and being employed as seasonal winter employees for ODOT.

Versatile workers

The transportation agency is putting the versatility of its employees to good use by transferring some full-time workers from other positions to fill seasonal winter spots.

Employees at ODOT who have different summer and winter jobs include Andy Adkins, the bridge crew coordinator for ODOT's District 13 and a winter road maintenance worker. He said that doing snow and ice and removal leaves him with little downtime in the winter.

While he compared the job to parenting — "It is like having kids," he said. "You are busy constantly" — Adkins noted that the winter challenge of keeping roads clear of snow and ice is a unique undertaking.

"It is an entity all its own," he said.

Dick Mason is a reporter with The Observer. Contact him at 541-624-6016 or