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‘It’ll take us longer’: Salt Lake County snowplow delays possible amid driver shortage

The county needs about 15 more employees with commercial driver’s licenses to reach normal staffing levels.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jake Brown walks by snowplows at a UDOT facility in Cottonwood Heights, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. A labor shortage could affect the number of snowplows that can be on the road this winter. Brown says 60% of the facility's workers have turned over in the past year.

Salt Lake County is looking to hire more workers to drive snowplows as it goes into the winter season short staffed.

Snowplows are driven by regular public works department employees who have commercial driver’s licenses, or CDLs. The department needs to hire about 15 more employees to reach its normal staffing levels of roughly 120 drivers, associate operations director Leon Berrett said.

After a storm, it can take upwards of eight hours to plow area roads. But with fewer workers, Berrett said he expects it will take a couple hours more.

“The bottom line is it’ll take us longer to clear the streets,” Berrett said.

With a record low unemployment rate, many businesses are struggling to fill jobs. Public works jobs, which include snowplowing positions, are no exception.

Several U.S. states say they won’t be able to clear roads as quickly as previous years because they are stretched so thin on employees. Berrett said it will be the same for the county.

“Good news, bad news,” Berrett said. “The economy is doing well, but that makes it harder to fill positions.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Snowplows sit idle at a UDOT facility in Cottonwood Heights, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. A labor shortage could affect the number of snowplows that can be on the road this winter.

The county has more than 60 snowplows, Berrett said, and will typically send out 30 to 40 plows while — or after — it snows.

Two positions in Provo’s Public Works Department have been vacant for months, streets and stormwater manager Richard Snyder said. The department offers apprenticeship programs and other training -- even to acquire a CDL.

To fill the need for drivers, the department will call on other departments’ employees who have CDLs, Snyder said.

“It’s not like we’re to the point that services won’t be taken care of,” Snyder said. “It might not be as quick because some of them have never plowed snow before.”

Many other municipalities in Utah say they are well staffed for the season.

The Utah Department of Transportation, which plows state and interstate highways, doesn’t expect snow removal delays, spokesman John Gleason said.

“We’re very fortunate that we haven’t been hit as hard as some of the other departments,” he said.

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) A snowplow clears the road in Big Cottonwood Canyon in this file photo from November 17, 2017.

The department currently employs about 650 trained snowplow drivers, Gleason said. Officials will continue monitoring vacancies to ensure the department maintains the staffing it needs to keep roads clear.

Snowplowing is an unpredictable job, requiring drivers to dispatch during storms at any hour of the day. If a storm hits during Christmas dinner, for example, drivers are expected to pack up and hit the road.

“Coming into the holidays, they make a lot of sacrifices to ensure the safety of the people driving out on the roads,” Gleason said.

Drivers who encounter a snowplow on the road should keep a long distance behind the plow and should not pass the plow. Berrett also said drivers should avoid parking on the street when it snows.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jake Brown examines road salt at a UDOT facility in Cottonwood Heights, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. A labor shortage will affect the number of snowplows that can be on the road this winter. Brown says 60% of the facility's workers have turned over in the past year.

“Be aware of the snowplows,” Berrett said, “and be respectful of the drivers.”

About a quarter of weather-related crashes in the U.S. are caused by slushy or icy pavement, according to the Federal Highway Administration. These crashes kill more than 1,300 people per year and injure more than 150,000.

Before you drive in the winter, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration recommends checking to make sure tires are in good condition, headlights, brake lights, turn signals and emergency flashers are working and that windshield wiper fluid is full and operational.

Drivers should also stock their vehicles with some tools for wintry conditions:

  • A snow shovel, brush and ice scraper

  • Sand or kitty litter to spread on the ground to help tires get traction on ice or in heavy snow

  • Jumper cables

  • Flashlights and warning devices like flares or reflective markers

  • Blankets, phone chargers, water and food in case the car gets stuck

In an emergency, drivers and passengers should stay with their vehicles and make sure they can be seen by turning on lights.

To prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, vehicles stuck in snowy weather should be on sporadically and only as long as it takes to get warm. Drivers should also check to make sure the exhaust pipe isn’t blocked by snow.

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