Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

COVID-19 Could Hamper Snow Plowing

Milwaukee bracing for staffing shortages as the pandemic spreads.

By - Nov 11th, 2020 02:29 pm
City of Milwaukee garbage truck with attached snow plow trying to clear the street. Photo taken February 12th, 2019 by Jeramey Jannene.

City of Milwaukee garbage truck with attached snow plow trying to clear the street. Photo taken February 12th, 2019 by Jeramey Jannene.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had all kinds of indirect impacts: cleaner air from reduced driving, a national coin shortage and a surge in demand for aluminum cans.

Get ready to add poorer snow plowing to that list.

Pandemic-induced staffing shortages could result in a shortage of plow operators in Milwaukee.

The Department of Public Works was hit with a series of staffing issues early in the pandemic. “We obviously had a very big spike early on,” said Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske to members of the Common Council’s Public Works Committee on Wednesday morning.

In late March almost one-third of the department’s 1,950 employees were out because of various reasons related to the pandemic.

“Over the summer months we had a few spikes here and there,” he said. That coincided with case volumes stabilizing, and even falling, in Milwaukee and the 14-day positive case rate, a measure of tests confirming a new case, falling to a low of 2.69% in June. That rate has now spiked to more than 32% with Milwaukee County and the state setting new record highs each week since September.

“I would say in this last month, here in October, things have progressively increased,” said Polenske of staff outages.

“You have one or two people that test positive, and you have others that were in close contact,” he said. All end up out of work for at least two weeks.

Alderman Robert Bauman asked if the city would revert to a plan to have one person drive a garbage truck with another in a trailing vehicle.

“We do have two people in vehicles. The requirement is you must have a mask [on],” said Polenske.

“You actually do have social distancing in some of those packers, it’s a very large cab,” said the commissioner, using the industry term for a garbage truck.

But the staff outages are expected to have an impact. “It certainly has been noticeable and it will impact our operations,” he said. “We will continue to evaluate our operation and the necessary steps we need to take.”

Polenske said the city is adding more private contractors to its roster than usual. Private operators with their own equipment, often end loaders, augment the city’s fleet of large trucks that plow the streets. “It certainly does have the chance to impact that service as well,” he said of the disease’s spread.

“We are going to put forth our best effort whatever the weather conditions are,” said the commissioner.

He said he thought the flexibility people currently have with working from home could improve the situation, keeping drivers off the roads. Milwaukee Public Schools being virtual through at least January should also help.

But Bauman warned that might not work as expected.

“That could not necessarily be a positive for snow plowing because there are more cars on the streets in residential areas,” said the alderman.

What to do? Avoid gatherings to limit exposure to the virus and do what the city does every winter: pray it doesn’t snow.

For more on the city’s snow plowing efforts, see my January article where I went inside the city’s snow plowing operation.

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