A third of CDOT’s Yampa Valley positions are vacant, as agency takes ‘all hands on deck’ approach to winter plowing | SteamboatToday.com

A third of CDOT’s Yampa Valley positions are vacant, as agency takes ‘all hands on deck’ approach to winter plowing

A Colorado Department of Transportation plow truck clears snow on U.S Highway 40 over Rabbit Ears Pass in November 2022. This winter, plow drivers drove over a million miles more than usual and roads have seen more damage. The state has given CDOT an additional $45 million for snow and ice removal and repairs.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Down a third of its plow truck drivers in the Yampa Valley, the Colorado Department of Transportation is utilizing engineers, maintenance staff and even some administrative workers to plow key roadways.

In garages along U.S. Highway 40 and Colorado Highway 131, CDOT has 16 of 24 plow truck driver positions filled. Despite the eight vacancies, CDOT officials say people should expect plowing to be on par with previous years.

“Our current plan is to backfill a lot of our shortages or issues with our mechanics and our engineers, who are not traditionally in plow trucks, but who will step up to fill in,” said Randy McIntosh, CDOT’s Section Six superintendent, based in Northwest Colorado. “We also have foreman and supervisors in plow trucks this year as well, which will be different from years past.”

Winter maintenance and safety on the roads is a top priority for the agency, meaning CDOT will take an “all hands on deck” approach, he said.

“It’s not that they don’t have a job to do otherwise, but they’re stepping out of their comfort zone,” McIntosh said of workers helping out behind the wheel of a plow this winter.

CDOT officials said the agency has historically had about 10% of its jobs vacant, but that has doubled in recent years. Out of 1,600 maintenance positions across the state, the agency is trying to hire for about 300 entry-level jobs.

The agency has boosted pay, offered winter bonuses and housing stipends, and is working on mass promotions across the state to retain and attract new employees, but vacancies persist.

“We would love to be 100% full, but our goal is literally to get back to our 10% traditional vacancy rate,” said John Lorme, Director of Maintenance and Operations for CDOT, based in Denver. “We really are focusing on retention first. … We want to plug the hole in the bucket before we put the water back in it.”

Locally, the Hayden garage is down two plow drivers and the Rabbit Ears Pass and Steamboat Springs garages each have three open jobs. The Yampa garage is the only one fully staffed locally, with all five plowing positions filled.

To ensure roads are plowed when a storm rolls through, McIntosh said they intend to shift resources with a storm and focus on key stretches of road like U.S. 40 between Steamboat and Craig, and over Rabbit Ears Pass. Still, he said the weather could overwhelm their capabilities, even if fully staffed. 

“I would love to say that we can handle anything that mother nature throws at us, but she has a bigger shovel than we do,” McIntosh said.

Jason Smith, Region Three Transportation Director covering much of the Western Slope, said employees with a commercial drivers license are being asked to step up, even if plowing isn’t really their job.

Staffing is always in flux, Smith said, but they have had a hiring surge since earlier in the year, when 25 of Colorado’s 64 counties were down at least 20% of their maintenance workers. At that time, CDOT officials told Routt County Commissioners they were competing with places like Wendy’s in terms of wages.

As heavy snow fell throughout the day on Thursday, Nov. 3, CDOT officials in Denver and on the Western Slope emphasized they are hiring. 

Lorme said CDOT workers have received a 13% increase in pay in the last two years across a couple different raises and another pay bump is planned for the upcoming fiscal year. The agency has also added a winter performance bonus of $2,000 for plow drivers that have good attendance through the winter season.

“A good operator who comes to work and does a great job will receive a bonus, plus they get substantial overtime,” Lorme said.

The agency is also in the process of a “mass reallocation” for anyone that has worked three years or more, promoting them from the entry-level transportation maintenance specialist position to a heavy equipment operator.

Rather than wait for people to apply to open positions, Lorme said they have changed their strategy and try to appeal to recent high school graduates about opportunities for a career with the agency. This has included starting up what Lorme said is essentially their own school to get new recruits a commercial drivers license, which he said is an investment of roughly $7,000 per employee.

“If they’re not going to college, come work for CDOT,” Lorme said. “We have training programs and apprenticeship programs that are all certified, which allows us to recruit individuals that we normally wouldn’t be interested in a couple of years ago because they didn’t have CDLs.”

The agency is also hoping to address housing, with projects currently underway in Frisco and Fairplay. Chief Human Resources Officer Kristi Graham-Gitkind said the agency recently completed a housing study, which resulted in many employees having their stipend doubled, and others starting to get one for the first time.

“Some of these compensation pieces, we are putting them into place as soon as possible,” Graham-Gitkind said, adding that employees will see their stipend increase this month, and the reallocation would occur in December. “We’re hiring, (and) CDOT is a great place to grow your career.”

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