WORCESTER — When the snow starts falling this winter, be prepared for the possibility it could take a little longer before the city's and surrounding towns' roads and sidewalks are clear for safe travel.
That is because some communities face a shortage of plow drivers and equipment.
A scan of the city of Worcester’s website shows it's accepting applications from owners of snow-removal equipment.
A normal process, since the city relies on the assistance from outside contractors annually for snow removal. Hourly rates in Worcester run $75 to $180, depending on the type of equipment.
That compares to approximately $45 per hour for the city's full-time staff who work an overtime shift to clear the snow.
“I’ve seen the headlines,” said Jay Fink, commissioner of Worcester’s Department of Public Works & Parks, alluding to the sky-is-falling reports of towns scrambling to find trucks, loaders, tractors and sanders.
And drivers to operate them.
“Worcester is not ringing the alarm bell,” Fink added, noting the city normally gives outside contractors until Dec. 1 to sign up for snow-removal duty.
Worcester needs approximately 320 pieces of snow-removal equipment in a typical winter.
Recently, Fink said the city had about 190 pieces committed from outside contractors, plus 60 pieces in-house.
That math leaves the city 70 pieces short of what it needs to fight storms. The hope is contractors using their equipment to finish construction jobs in the fall season will sign on the dotted line by the end of this month.
“I’m not too concerned, just yet,” Fink said.
The city uses an incentive program with its outside drivers.
Those who sign a contract by Dec. 1, and show up for every storm, are paid an additional $1,000. The amount is $2,000 for drivers who own large equipment, like a 10-wheel truck.
Those monies help cover the cost of insurance, and wear and tear on equipment.
"Other communities provide an hourly rate to cover costs. It's what differentiates us from them," Fink said.
Fink's department has a budget of $6 million specifically for snow and ice removal. Massachusetts law allows cities and towns to exceed appropriated amounts for those purposes.
Last year, Worcester didn't spend its entire $6 million, and Fink said the unspent funds were used to buy trucks that reached the end of their useful life.
Problem years before COVID-19
Last year, COVID-19 was largely to blame for the shortage of drivers and equipment.
Two local public works directors, Jeffrey Howland in Shrewsbury and John Woodsmall in Holden, said the shortage was building for several years before the pandemic.
Shrewsbury is eight drivers short of what it needs, and in speaking to the overall marketplace, Howland said a lot of older drivers are retiring and there aren’t younger ones to fill the gap.
“It’s a difficult job,” Howland said, adding the unpredictable nature of weather translates into an uncertain revenue stream. Another downside for drivers is the cost of maintaining equipment so it's ready to go at a moment's notice.
Shrewsbury is having discussions about financial incentives to lure drivers, but that’s a budget item that will have to wait until the next fiscal year.
In the meantime, the town increased the pay rate for contracted drivers as a carrot to attract candidates. Depending on the type of equipment one brings to the table, the hourly rate is $90 to $150.
Holden, with a 25-person fleet to fight winter storms, is two drivers short. Both positions will be filled by hiring full-time employees, because Holden doesn’t hire contracted plow operators, Woodsmall said.
High cost of insurance
Keith Caruso, acting director of Public Works in Millbury, touched on this reality.
Towns require outside contractors buy insurance, and a $1 million liability policy can cost up to $5,000 annually, Caruso said.
The problem is the number of severe storms dropped dramatically since 2015, according to Caruso. For contracted drivers to be called in and get an hourly wage on a consistent basis to pay off their insurance costs, it needs to snow heavily on a regular basis.
Fewer storms mean drivers aren’t called in. The result is they're not making the necessary cash to pay off their insurance bill.
One idea floated by Woodsmall is pay drivers a minimum guaranteed amount for the entire winter season. Whether it snows a total of 6 or 60 inches, drivers get the same amount of cash.
Ultimately, any solution to address the shortage of drivers and equipment comes down to money.
Towns can invest in whatever it takes to clear snow. The worry, Woodsmall said, is that staff and equipment hired full time to do the work could sit around doing little else for the rest of the year. Not a good financial return on investment for a city or town.
“When you’re dealing with government, you’re trying to minimize tax burden,” Woodsmall said. “With limited budgets, where do you spend the money?”
Howland's potential solution for Shrewsbury's driver shortage is do more with less. That could mean shifting drivers around so they take on more routes during snowstorms.
"We're planning for the worst, and hoping for the best," Howland said.
All for naught?
Any concern about driver shortages may be unnecessary, because the winter forecast doesn't exactly paint a picture of a constant barrage of snow.
Above-average temperatures and a normal amount of precipitation are expected for Worcester this winter, said Alan Dunham, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norton.
Worcester normally averages 72.9 inches of snow annually, according to Dunham, who was noncommittal when it comes to predictions.
"How much snow are we going to get? There's no way to tell," he said.
Contact Henry Schwan at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @henrytelegram
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: Worcester, area towns like Shrewsbury and Holden struggle find snowplow drivers as winter approaches