Think Out Loud

As winter approaches, labor shortages in Eastern Oregon lead to fewer snow plows on the road

By Rolando Hernandez (OPB)
Nov. 21, 2022 11:55 p.m. Updated: Nov. 22, 2022 9:12 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, Nov. 22

File photo from April 11, 2022. In Eastern Oregon, labor shortages has led to fewer snow plows on the road. This is a result of a declining number of seasonal workers and state regulations that made obtaining a commercial driver's license more time consuming.

File photo from April 11, 2022. In Eastern Oregon, labor shortages has led to fewer snow plows on the road. This is a result of a declining number of seasonal workers and state regulations that made obtaining a commercial driver's license more time consuming.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

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A labor shortage in Eastern Oregon is making it harder to remove ice and snow on Oregon highways. As the La Grande Observer reports, the Oregon Department of Transportation employs 300 positions in the eastern part of the state, but has almost 40 vacancies. Most of those empty positions are for permanent and seasonal employees that are in charge of road maintenance. Rich Lani is ODOT’s District 12 manager. He joins us to share why it’s getting harder to get people behind the wheel of snow plows and what this shortage could mean for the future.

Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. A labor shortage in Eastern Oregon is making it harder to remove ice and snow from state highways. As the La Grande Observer reported recently, the Oregon Department of Transportation has 300 positions in the eastern part of the state, but nearly 40 vacancies. Most of those are for permanent or seasonal employees who work to keep roads clear. Rich Lani is ODOT’s District 12 manager, that’s one of the districts in the region and he joins us now.

Rich Lani: Hi Dave, thanks for having me today.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. So as I mentioned, the La Grande Observer reported recently, 40 vacancies out of 300 snowplowing and other positions in Eastern Oregon as a whole. You, though, are in charge of one of the districts in the region. What do the numbers look like in your particular area?

Lani: District 12 is one of three in Region 5. And just to clear some of those numbers up, the boots on the ground for winter maintenance is 206 employees that are involved in the winter maintenance and snow removal. And we’re currently at 39 vacancies. And so in my district, we normally have around 70 fulltime and seasonal employees that are out there for 24/7 coverage. Currently, I’m short five fulltime employees and eight seasonals. And I also have a couple that are out on other leave, like an extended medical leave of absence. The other two districts, District 13 and 14 are similar numbers, for a total of 32 vacancies right now. That’s 39 employees that we don’t have to fill those shifts for 24/7 coverage. And with your folks that have sick leave, day to day or other leaves, that puts us at about a 20% vacancy rate right now.

Miller: What kinds of jobs are we actually talking about? I mean, what are the roles involved here?

Lani: The majority is out driving our 10-yard snowplow trucks that do snow and ice removal. We treat the roads by plowing the roads or deicing, using abrasives such as sandy rock or salt or a combination of all of them, just depending on what the weather is doing. We have prescribed treatments for virtually everything.

Miller: You mentioned 24-hour coverage. If you have a labor gap of 20% on any given day, give or take, can you actually provide 24-hour coverage?

Lani: No, it’s a challenge right now. And in some of our remote sections, we are really having difficulty recruiting anybody. The Jordan Valley and Burns area in District 14 are very remote. We have on site housing, trying to attract applicants that are qualified and have the Class A CDL to operate our commercial vehicles. It’s been a struggle. So we’re trying to be creative with shifts. We’ll have some days that we don’t have coverage in the early hours of the morning. We try to plan our labor around the lowest traffic time. So if we’re going to have a gap in coverage, it will be in the early hours of the morning. We’ll try to get our folks out around 4:00 before the morning commute, before the school buses run and then again in the evening. At the same time in the afternoon, make sure we have folks out there, during peak traffic times, when that situation happens.

Miller: It seems like you’re triaging, using the resources you have based on optimizing that to people’s schedules. But the other big variable here is when the weather is going to be very bad and that’s not necessarily going to play nice with folks’ schedules. How do you handle that?

Lani: Well we have a lot of great tools for monitoring the weather and forecast, but as you know, they have some great models and they’re usually pretty close, but it’s never perfect. We do utilize overtime. We look ahead. We try to be proactive on calling folks in on overtime. But you know, there’s a point where you only have so many people to call in and they can only work so many hours. And we’re trying to avoid employee burnout or operating beyond safe levels. And 12 hours is pretty much as long as we want to have anybody on the road running a truck and then get them off. So most of the time it’s a 12-hour shift when we’re in the middle of a storm event.

Miller: You mentioned some of the more remote areas, Jordan Valley and near Burns, as some of the more problematic in the region. And you mentioned that you actually offer housing to people. What’s the reason?

Lani: It’s out in the middle of nowhere and to try to get somebody to drive that distance every day to work is unreasonable, especially with today’s fuel prices. Jordan Valley and Basque are very remote. They’re on one highway down there on Highway 95. Basque is actually a maintenance station and it’s a place along the highway that’s an ODOT facility. So there’s permanent employee housing there. We actually offer RV hookups too, if folks can be there for the whole week. It’s just difficult to recruit somebody to go live out in the middle of nowhere, and drag their family out there. We have a similar instance in Meacham, which is in District 12, my district. It’s over the mountain pass between Pendleton and Le Grande with limited employee housing. We have two houses up there which we have filled. But it’s been difficult to recruit folks to drive that extra when they could get employment in Pendleton or Le Grande on either side of the hill. So it’s another 50 miles per day out of their pocket.

Miller: Have you expanded these kinds of offerings in terms of travel allowances or actually putting people into housing as a result of these labor issues?

Lani: Yes. In fact one step they’ve taken in District 14 is to offer travel expenses per diem, which would cover their meals and noncommercial per diem rate seven days a week. Just to try to entice folks from around the state. Our region Manager put out an offer statewide that anybody that was willing and had their manager’s blessing to come down there, we would offer to fill that gap until we could try to get permanent positions filled. We’ve had a lot of people ask, but no takers yet.

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Miller: So even with the state saying we’re going to spend more money to make this easier for you and reduce your out of pocket expenses, you’ve gotten some nibbles, but you haven’t gotten any hires yet from that?

Lani: That’s correct.

Miller: How do you explain that?

Lani: I think it’s just a sacrifice that folks . . . the whole labor industry, not just ODOT, I think you’ll see it anywhere and it’s a nationwide problem, just trying to recruit those folks. There’s a lot of available jobs out there and if they don’t have to make a sacrifice, they won’t. And living in a remote place such as Basque or Jordan Valley is a sacrifice for the family. I just don’t think that people are willing to do that and they don’t have to right now.

Miller: Because they have other options. I want to go back to something else that you mentioned. It seems like it’s an important piece of this particular story. Obviously there are labor shortages in all kinds of industries. But not every job requires a particular kind of driver’s license to actually do that job. How significant is the CDL, the commercial driver’s license, requirements in terms of this conversation?

Lani: It’s very important for our employees that drive plow trucks to have, at minimum, a Class B. So the positions that typically are maintenance workers, we require them to have a Class A CDL which allows them to drive a combination vehicle, [for example] a dump truck and a trailer behind it. And they have air brake restrictions lifted, so that’s an endorsement on their license. Federal Highway recently changed their requirements. So it’s more stringent, there’s longer training required prior to the testing. They have online modules that are in place [that] they have to take and pass them. They have required driver training and then the pre-trip and all that. It’s quite complex now. It’s not as easy as it used to be. It could be a couple of months worth of training to get done. And that’s been a challenge for us is to find folks that have a CDL. We are willing to train and we do train. We will bring on folks that have the ability to get it. If they have a permit, we spend time training them and we help them through the whole process.

Miller: When you say help them, you mean, for example, paying them to do the training and paying them as they are doing the training?

Lani: Yes. We would hire them on. During their six month trial service, typically, we have one of the standing items which is the ability to obtain [the Class A CDL]. So they need to be able to obtain that license within six months. And we provide hands-on training while they’re getting paid. They have to pay for their license itself, but we provide the truck, we provide the experienced drivers, we have professional trainers from Salem that we will send out to work with new employees, driving, doing their pre-trip and getting them ready to get out on the road and operate these.

One of the issues that we’ve seen is we do this a lot with seasonal employees which are a fulltime position, but they’re six months of the year. So winter seasonals are actually fulltime. They have benefits. They have recall rights the next year. When we lay them off after the winter, and it becomes summer, they’re highly employable because they have this Class A CDL in their pocket. And a lot of private industry will lure them away, pay them more money and offer them year round employment. So it’s difficult to find folks that have a six month career that we can get to return every year for seasonal work.

Miller: That seems like it’s just challenge after challenge. But this one seems like a really big one because somebody could actually be using the generosity or necessities of the State of Oregon, they could get a commercial driver’s license, work for one season after that. And then, as you’re noting, when they’re not getting paid, they can get some other job, not a state job, and then leave and not come back in the winter. What’s the solution for that?

Lani: We don’t have the magic solution for that right now because we don’t have the funding for fulltime employees to keep them employed year round. We do have a program called the Fire and Ice Program where folks work for the Department of Forestry firefighting during the summer, have seasonal jobs, then work as our winter seasonals. It is kind of a good match for that and we do have a few of them sprinkled out in the region, but not a lot.

We try to also go to industries [like] asphalt paving companies. You can’t pave in the middle of winter out here. And so their folks get laid off and we try to reach out to them to try to just pick up their folks that are laid off during the winter to come work for a few crucial months during the heaviest storm times. We just keep running into a brick wall right now.

Miller: So given all of this, what should drivers keep in mind in the winter?

Lani: Well, we have prescribed levels of service that we tried to maintain and meet. During the height of the storm it’s hard to have the road perfect. But our interstates are a higher level of service compared to our secondary roads and rural highways. Right now a driver traveling in Eastern Oregon highways can expect to see a plow truck every 85-120 miles when traveling. And so that’s what we have out on the road making our rounds. We really rely on folks to make good judgment. I mean, we can’t be in the rig driving for them. If they see adverse conditions, slow down. If they don’t have to travel when it’s freezing rain, stay home.

When the road gets blocked, [for example], a commercial vehicle that doesn’t put chains on when we have a chain condition posted and they spin out and block the whole freeway, it not only stops traffic for everybody, but it also keeps our trucks from being able to continue down the road and plow the snow, put down de-icer or salt, whatever the method may be calling for. And it puts us behind. And then we’re also trying to help manage the incident on scene with limited resources. So it just kind of stretches us thinner. Take time, be prepared and drive to the conditions of the road is probably my best advice.

Miller: Rich Lani, good luck this season. And thanks very much for your time.

Lani: You betcha, thanks for having me.

Miller: Rich Lani is the manager of Oregon Department Transportations District 12 in Eastern Oregon. He joined us to talk about the hiring problems they’re dealing with right now in terms of snow and ice removal.

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