Lack of plows leads to delays, higher costs

Lack of plows leads to delays, higher costs

Cumberland Highway Supt. Frank Stowik says a continuing shortage of plow drivers will lead to either greater investments in personnel or a diminishment of services during storms. He’s not the only one making that case. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)

CUMBERLAND – The increasing price tag of being a plow driver is hurting local communities in the form of higher costs and slower responses to storms, say area officials, who are looking for new and creative ways to address the situation.

Cumberland Highway Supt. Frank Stowik told The Breeze that recent hikes to insurance rates, bringing the total to $4,000 or more, plus the increasing cost of buying a plow and having it installed on a pickup truck, now more than $6,000, are playing into the shortage.

During a first snowstorm on Dec. 3, Cumberland was short six or seven trucks, leading to some delays in plowing as drivers who would normally move on to sanding after completing their routes ended up filling in in other areas. Cumberland is getting more roads to plow, with fewer drivers to do the work, said Stowik. Though the town was able to handle its business last week, a major storm would likely bring more serious issues, with few to no backup trucks when someone inevitably breaks down, he said.

Cumberland, which has a standard of 30 town employees and 40 vendors, will either need to hire more employees or learn to deal with diminished service, said Stowik, a sentiment echoed by leaders in other communities.

The town did the best it could during the first storm, he said, but the timing of the snow with morning rush hour hurt. Many people don’t understand that a driver will often make a first pass for emergency vehicles and then come back later to finish the job, he said.

A good “V-plow,” the kind that bends in the middle, is now about $6,140, where it was $3,500 a few years ago, said Stowik.

“Everything’s gone up,” he said.

Lincoln Town Administrator Joe Almond said his town is down about three private contractors who previously did municipal work, but he’s not sure what factors led to their departure.

One operator the town approached did say that he couldn’t commit to the town work due to his commitment to his commercial work, he said, but the municipal work didn’t seem to present an issue for him.

Lincoln is preparing to advertise for new drivers, Almond said.

Unlike a North Providence or Woonsocket, Lincoln doesn’t supply any vehicles to private contractors, which would liability to the town, he said.

Lincoln and Cumberland have a lot more roads than a more urbanized area, he said.One factor in the driver shortage being experienced in many towns might be the added wear and tear with municipal plowing, he said.

The current shortage impacts Lincoln only slightly, said Almond, as the town is able to stretch out some routes and institute some small delays.“We can work with it for now,

Pawtucket

DPW Director Eric Earls said the city was short about 10 vendor vehicles in the first storm after losing some longtime drivers due to insurance costs who had been plowing in the city for years. When you lose drivers, you also lose efficiency, he said, as new people haven’t fully learned their routes yet.

Earls said that city recently increased its pay to vendors to be as competitive as possible, putting it ahead of the state in terms of pay for the various tiers for private contractors. Increases in insurance rates for plow operators, reported on last winter by The Breeze, is having an even greater impact this year, said Earls, to the point where municipalities are competing more against private companies than other communities for service. With municipal insurance coverage for municipal plowing now at $4,000 or more, he said, vendors know they have to do about 40 hours of plowing just to start making money.

“If there’s a mild winter, you’re losing money,” he said. “It’s quite a risk.”

Then there’s the vehicle maintenance, gas, and all the other costs that go into it, he said.

“From our perspective, it seems like a lot to ask of contractors” to expect them to take on the liability if someone slips and falls on a sidewalk that they plowed snow onto, but that’s the “litigious society” we’re living in, said Earls.

Pawtucket residents likely noticed that certain city lots took longer to plow and some streets didn’t get plowed right away during the first storm, said Earls, and that was because drivers who normally would have done that work were put on other routes. Streets need to be plowed first, he said.

“It’s definitely impacting us operationally,” said Earls. “We’re doing the best we can, but to be down that many vendor trucks, especially those who have been with the city for years, (it’s difficult).”

The city will definitely “get through it and figure it out,” said Earls, and officials don’t expect nearly the same shortage for the next storm.

He said he expects more juggling of operations in the future, with the only available options being either higher costs or a less efficient overall operation.

North Providence

Mayor Charles Lombardi said that town was short at least six people during the first storm, due to both overall driver shortages and local illnesses and surgeries. “Everyone’s been pitching in” on snow removal, he said, including workers who don’t typically do it.

“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “We got the word out that we’re looking for drivers.”

On the liability issue, Lombardi said the town would allow drivers to use municipal vehicles, but many would rather come with their own truck due to the higher pay. He said part of the shortage might be due to the shrinking unemployment rate.

Lombardi agreed that the future of municipal snow-clearing operations will either “cost more money or take a little longer to clean the roads.”

Woonsocket

Public Works Director Steve D’Agostino said that city struggles especially to get applications from vendors to drive larger trucks.

“We’re still taking applications, but I know of a lot of vendors who do snow removal privately who don’t do it anymore because of all the slip-and-falls now,” he said. “The insurance is almost double now for snow plow drivers who do it for themselves. Quite frankly, they don’t need the aggravation. It’s more widespread than ever before, because there’s more lawsuits than ever before, more people are being sued.”

He says he used to do snow plowing privately and one of the reasons he stopped doing it was the insurance.

“It has affected the city, absolutely, it gets tougher and tougher every year,” he said. “Every storm, we probably use a dozen vendors. It’s tough, a lot of them fall by the wayside as the year goes on, so you’re constantly looking for vendors.”

Last week’s storm “really taxed the workforce,” said D’Agostino. “You’re really pushing them to their limits. Some of these guys, they’re out 26 hours and then the same guys have to clean the sidewalks after. You’re asking a lot of a small group of people to do this. The more people the better, especially in the winter.”

Editor’s note: Various Breeze reporters contributed to this story.

Comments

If it wasn't so expensive i'd put a plow on my truck. The wear and tear on those trucks are a lot to maintain as well though! It's a lot of work for those guys that are doing it, and sometimes they seem to be rushing down the streets things, mailboxes, they broke a sign of ours, etc. While they do a great job, sometimes a little more care would be nice too...

Just an idea.
Have the town buy assets it needs to plow, and maintain them. Rather than hire employees, give the work to willing taxpayers who can be trained relatively easily, plowing is not rocket science, and in return you get a break on taxes commensurate with the hourly rate and hours worked.

We pay too much to the contractors, it costs to much for their personal investment, and if there is no snow there is no pay. Something has got to give.

We should not be hiring more people, we are Taxed Enough Already in Cumberland!

Respectively speaking I can tell you have never plowed. It is a bit harder that you think . It drains your body and mind . Think of 8 hours driving straight ,its like from Cumberland to the border of Canada . The best way to solve this problem is to make it illegal for the lawyers to advertise personal injury lawsuits in slip and fall on snow. This drives the cost of insurance to a point that plowing is not worth it . I have plowed for over 35 years until last year because the insurance company's were making more money than I was . Happy Holidays

Thank you, Chief!! Plowing is much more work than people think! I plowed for the town for 1 season and it just isn't worth the small amount of money they pay and the harrassment from residents.