Drivers in Some States Face Delays as Snowplow Drivers Quit Over Low Pay, Vaccine Mandates

Many states face snowplow driver shortages this holiday season as private competitors offer better pay and COVID-19 vaccine mandates drive some out of the job.

Transportation departments across the country have made statements for drivers to expect longer waits for streets to be cleared amid impending winter storms.

They cited a low nation-wide unemployment rate and increased demand for drivers with a Commercial Driver's License in other industries as reasons why more people might not be interested in taking on the job.

Barbara LaBoe, spokesperson for Washington state's Department of Transportation, said private companies are more flexible, being able to raise salaries and provide bonuses without having to get approval like state agencies do.

"Everyone's sort of competing for the same group of workers and private companies can often offer higher salaries than the state government," LaBoe said.

LaBoe added that Washington lost 151 snowplow drivers because they refused to comply with COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Even with some states offering to pay for CDL training for any snowplow drivers they hire, these drivers would not be ready to begin by the time they will be most needed, as weather forecasts are predicting snow soon in states including Colorado, Utah, Nebraska, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico.

Snowplow, Washington
More U.S. drivers could find themselves stuck on snowy highways or have their travel delayed this winter due to a shortage of snowplow drivers as some states are having trouble finding enough people willing to take the jobs. Above, a Washington Department of Transportation snowplow works on a stretch of eastbound Interstate Highway 90 on December 9, 2021, as snow falls near Snoqualmie Pass in Washington state. Ted S. Warren/AP Photo

The labor shortage and lingering concerns about the pandemic have left employers scrambling to find enough school bus drivers, waiters, cooks and even teachers. The shortage comes as the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits dropped last week to the lowest level in 52 years and some are seeking a better work-life balance.

One of the main competitors for states seeking workers with a Commercial Driver's License are private trucking companies that have been raising driver pay, in some cases several times this year, to fill their own shortages and meet the increasing demand to move freight and clear supply chain bottlenecks.

Some snowplow drivers work year-round in highway maintenance jobs, while seasonal workers are hired to fill the additional shifts in the winter.

The shortage is leading states to make plans to shift mechanics and other full-time employees who have Commercial Driver's Licenses into plows, which can cause problems if a plow needs maintenance work and the mechanic is out driving.

In Washington, LaBoe said some roads and mountain passes will be closed longer than usual during and after significant storms and some roads may not receive the same level of service.

Brief or isolated storms won't cause problems in most states, in part because departments can move drivers and equipment around based on the weather forecast.

"If we have a series of storms over several days or if it hits the whole state at once, (the shortage) is going to become more evident because we don't have as deep a bench," LaBoe said.

Washington is still short about 150 seasonal and full-time workers, but things have improved since October when it was short 300 workers.

Even if states are able to hire drivers with commercial licenses, they still have to train them to run a snowplow and load the truck with salt and sand before learning a route.

"When you're plowing the road you need to know where the bridge abutment is and where the expansion joints are so you don't hook that with a plow," LaBoe said.

Pennsylvania is short 270 permanent positions and 560 temporary ones, but the Department of Transportation said that doesn't mean the roads will be treacherous this winter.

"Our goal is to keep roads safe and passable rather than completely free of ice and snow," said Alexis Campbell, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The roads will be cleared once the snow stops, she said.

Snowplow drivers are devoted to their jobs, understanding their work is critical to the safety of the traveling public and to emergency responders, said Rick Nelson director of the winter maintenance technical service program for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

Still, he understands convincing newcomers "to be out there in the worst conditions" can be difficult.

Nelson said the shortage means states will be shifting resources when they can and making sure roads are clear during times of peak demand while "you try to recruit, get out there and beat the bushes and convince folks that jumping in a plow in the middle of the night at Christmastime is a good career choice."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Snowplow driver, Colorado
States from Washington to Pennsylvania have reported a shortage of snowplow drivers ahead of multiple snowstorm forecasts. Above, Chris Vigil prepares his snowplow for operation as forecasters predict the first snow of the season to sweep over Front Range communities December 9, 2021, at the Colorado Department of Transportation shed in Castle Rock. David Zalubowski/AP Photo