The Maine Department of Transportation has 90 open positions on its highway maintenance crews that work on the front lines to keep roads clear during winter storms like the ones that swept through the state in the past week.

The department has managed to keep up with winter road work, but is not able to have two drivers per truck. That means a heavier workload for the remaining drivers, especially during back-to-back storms.

“So far, we have been able to secure enough people to meet the level of service, hopefully the public hasn’t seen an impact of this,” said Dale Doughty, the Department of Transportation’s director of operations and maintenance. “But it is my job to worry about that and make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Recruiting and retaining employees is a long-term challenge for Maine DOT, especially in southern Maine, where workers trained at the department are lured away by better-paying jobs, and fewer people want jobs that include long, thankless hours behind the wheel of a plow truck.

“These people don’t get the recognition they deserve,” said Ramona Welton, president of the Maine State Employees Association, the labor union representing state workers.

“They are out making sure the roads are clear and safe when they are telling everyone else to stay home,” she said.

It was “irresponsible” of Gov. Paul LePage’s administration to have that many open positions as the state heads into winter, Welton said.

She said the union has repeatedly told the administration it is willing to help retain workers by addressing the compensation issue.

“If you can’t keep people, look at it. Why do you have this problem?” Welton said.

Typically, 6 percent to 10 percent of the DOT’s highway maintenance positions are unfilled, but that figure has increased in recent years, especially in southern Maine, where a blossoming economy is attracting skilled workers to other jobs, Doughty said.

“In the southern Maine corridor we lost ground, we don’t attract people as quickly as we lose them,” he said, noting 12 percent to 15 percent of the highway maintenance positions are unfilled in Cumberland and York counties.

The current vacancies represent about 8 percent of the approximately 1,150 highway workers Doughty estimates the DOT employs. The department is actively hiring for about 50 of the 90 open spots, he said. Though the department is advertising for snow plow drivers, employees in the Transportation Worker I jobs are expected to perform a range of tasks such as ditching, road maintenance and brush clearing throughout the year.

Entry-level positions on state highway crews start at about $13.50 an hour, plus a $1,000 bonus at the end of the winter season. Experienced employees can earn up to $18.46 an hour. The positions include full state benefits.

No experience is required and the state trains new employees on its equipment so they can get a Maine commercial drivers license within six months. Until workers are certified, they can’t operate heavy plow trucks, but some will use smaller plows to clear highway ramps and road shoulders, Doughty said.

The state maintains about 8,200 miles of roadway, including Interstate 295, I-95, and roads such as routes 302, 1, 2, 3 and 4 when they are not in urban compact areas.

Many workers stay with the department just long enough to get their license and move on to a different job, Doughty said.

“We lose a lot of people after we’ve invested a lot of time training them,” he said.

Similar positions in other agencies pay more than the DOT’s beginning wage. Portland highway workers start at $17.70 an hour, and in Lewiston they start at $15.93, city officials said. The median wage for Maine highway workers in 2015 was $16.20, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

“I think pay is a factor, but looking at the whole package, it is still pretty good to work for the state,” Doughty said.

The Maine Turnpike Authority advertises a starting hourly wage of $17.73 for drivers with a commercial license and some experience. The turnpike authority still has trouble finding people willing to do tough winter road work, said John Cannell, director of highway and equipment maintenance.

“It is increasingly difficult to find people who are willing to plow snow,” Cannell said. Some qualified workers would rather have jobs with regular hours in the private sector, he said.

“We basically hire dump truck drivers, that is what earthwork contractors hire,” Cannell said. “The thing about being an earthwork driver is you’re not on call 24-7, you are not working nights and weekends and holidays.”

The private sector also is struggling to hire quality workers, said John Shaw, part owner of Shaw Brothers Construction in Gorham. Starting pay at the company is $18-$19 an hour, but it has become more difficult to recruit the right people.

“I don’t think they have it any harder than the rest of us, there aren’t enough people willing to do these jobs right now,” Shaw said.

Doughty and Cannell both said younger workers are shifting away from trades and into other industries. Most people applying for DOT jobs are between 35 and 40, and workers in their 20s and early 30s are becoming uncommon, Doughty said.

Employees who stay tend to stick with DOT for a long time, he added. The winter work eventually becomes routine.

“From the second week of November to the second week of April, for those 20 weeks I know I’m pretty much married to this job,” said Travis LaBelle, 36, a DOT transportation crew supervisor who works in Scarborough.

In the 15 years he’s worked for the department, LaBelle has missed Thanksgivings, Christmases and kid’s birthdays. One year he worked 300 hours of overtime in a season.

Driving in harsh conditions takes a physical toll, the hours can be excruciating – LaBelle said his longest shift was 36 hours – and dealing with motorists irritated about being stuck behind a plow truck becomes tiresome.

The payoff can be worth it though. LaBelle said he banks his overtime pay to spend in the summer and on family trips to Disney World and Washington, D.C. The benefits are good and he enjoys his work, but LaBelle understands why people aren’t attracted to the job.

“We are having a hard time keeping drivers, they don’t like the idea of coming in during the middle of the night, waiting for the phone calls,” he said.

“Your life is pretty much put on hold. You know there is a storm coming, you know you have to work, you can’t just go out to eat with your family.”

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