The pandemic is adding strain to existing winter workforce challenges at the New Hampshire Department of Transportation.
For one, it has upended the agency’s training processes for new plow drivers at a time when those drivers are already in short supply.
“Normally we would put two people in a truck, and one person would ride shotgun and kind of walk the new person through how to plow,” explained Dan Brennan, a highway maintainer and state DOT union steward. “But unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we can’t. And even if we wanted to, we don’t have the personnel to do it.”
Brennan said the agency’s persistent vacancies are what’s really having an impact on cleanup efforts during big storms like the one that rolled through New Hampshire last week. Trucks are down more often due to wear and tear, he said, but also the inexperience of new drivers who aren’t getting the thorough training they normally would.
“There are new contractors, because they’re trying to fill the void with contractors who are inexperienced,” Brennan said. “So we then have to go around the following days cleaning up just mistakes and inexperience, which just takes longer and longer.”
Gov. Chris Sununu imposed a hiring freeze across state agencies earlier this year, but he made an exception to allow the Department of Transportation to fill winter dispatch positions. Even so, the agency has about 100 open winter maintenance positions, up from about 70 the same time last year, according to DOT Chief Communications Officer Eileen Meaney.
About 40 Department of Transportation employees who normally work in other bureaus have helped fill in the gaps in the agency’s winter maintenance efforts this year, Meaney said, including “bridge maintenance and traffic personnel who have CDL licenses.”
“We then have another group who can be called upon if we have significant or sustained periods of winter weather,” Meaney said.
While the agency’s vacancy rate is higher than in the past, Meaney said NHDOT is doing its best to ensure it’s ready to respond to winter storms.
“Our continued focus, especially this year, is on keeping our workforce healthy and available,” Meaney said. “While we are shorthanded in certain areas, prior to every storm event we look at available resources and move/realign staffing and equipment based on the forecast and which regions of the state will be impacted.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Meaney said, about 30 of its employees have tested positive for COVID-19. Two were hospitalized, though they have since been discharged.
Brennan said the workforce shortages in the Department of Transportation would be less acute if the state offered more competitive wages. Open highway maintainer positions posted on the state’s recruiting website offer salaries from roughly $28,000 to $40,000.
“The reason people are leaving in our line of work, in highway maintenance, is because they’re going to cities and towns that pay $3 to $5 more an hour,” Brennan said. But given the looming budget shortfall, he doesn’t expect that to change anytime soon.