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As winter weather approaches, Kansas and Missouri face a shortage of snowplow drivers

CM_Snowplow.jpg
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
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A Kansas City snow plow moves along Troost Blvd. on Friday, Jan. 15 during an "enhanced band of snow" according the the National Weather Service.

As winter approaches, all levels of government are struggling to find qualified applicants to clear streets after snowfalls.

The term “essential worker” has taken on significant meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, state officials are challenged by a shortage of the type of worker who is especially essential after snow falls — snowplow drivers.

In fact, the Missouri Department of Transportation is short hundreds of snowplow drivers and put out a call for job applicants in September.

The Kansas Department of Transportation usually needs about 1,200 drivers to operate its fleet of snow plows during winter storms.

This year they’re down about 30%, thanks to nationwide labor shortages and an increased demand for commercial drivers.

Clay Adams, director of field operations for K-DOT, says crews should be able to clear snowy and icy roads if a storm hits just a portion of the state.

“If we have a snowstorm that blankets the entire state, then we’re going to start seeing more impact from the shortages.”

Kansas City officials, however, said they “are confident” heading into snow season.

Maggie Green, spokesperson for KCMO Public Works, said they are engaging employees from other departments to help plow snow and currently have all routes covered.

Green said there are many vacancies among several city departments they are trying to fill, but have held two hiring fairs in the last few months to fill maintenance worker and equipment operator positions.

She said multiple days or weeks of snow operations could start to affect routes when the city would need to pull employees in from other programs.

“This is where having more backup drivers would be helpful and would only be the case in severe, persistent conditions,” Green said.

Long hours and unique challenges

Jerry Rice has been plowing snow off Boone County roads for two years. Outside the county road and bridge department building along U.S. 63, he explained how preparing the equipment is a complicated yet essential part of the job.

“You don't just dress the truck out in five minutes and be out," said Rice. "If everybody works together 20 minutes a truck on the small ones, probably 45 on the bigger ones.”

Drivers meet at the building at the onset of a storm to help each other ready the trucks with the blade, chains and salt, then hit the road.

“We're ahead of some storms. (Others) you're behind before you can get your blade on your truck. And in some you stay behind,” said Rice.

County snow plow operators work up to 12-hour shifts until the road conditions are passable. Storms can mean long and unconventional hours for them.

“I've been in as early as 4 a.m. and I've been here as late as 2 a.m.,” said Rice.

Rice says a lot of people don’t understand the unique challenges of the job.

“You're not just driving a truck, you're not just plowing snow, you're not just trying to make decisions,” said Rice.

“You're dealing with people that are in a hurry, that are on their phones that aren't thinking about what they're doing. And it's stressful if you let it get to you.”

Drivers like Rice are becoming harder to come by, at the city, county and state levels:

  • The city of Columbia has 37 drivers, but is hoping to fill eight more positions.
  • Boone County has 48 staff members who respond to snow storms and is looking to fill two positions.
  • MODOT, which lacked the appropriate number of snowplow operators last year during the pandemic, has around 100 fewer drivers this year statewide.

Todd Miller, maintenance liaison engineer with MoDOT, said the state is doing what it can to ensure an appropriate storm response despite being down several hundred snowplow operators at this point.

“We're looking at some options and possibly moving staff around if it's a localized storm," said Miller. "But that's very rare here in Missouri. Usually we have a statewide response."

“The main thing is, it's just gonna take a little longer to clear the roads than it has in the past.”

A commercial driver’s license, or CDL, is required to operate most snowplow trucks.

“We continue to struggle as all of the industries currently are with the CDL licensing needs,” said MoDOT State Maintenance Director Natalie Roark.

MoDOT has 5,000 employees and 3,000 of them require a CDL to do their jobs, according to MoDOT Communications Director Linda Wilson Horn.

This story was originally published by KBIA. Read the full version here.

Copyright 2021 KBIA.

Jana Rose Schleis is a M.A. student at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is studying investigative journalism and government reporting.
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