Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Staffing Issues Could Leave Milwaukee With More Snowplows Than Drivers

At the very least, expect it to take longer for Milwaukee to clean up after a storm.

By - Oct 20th, 2021 01:12 pm
A City of Milwaukee snow plow. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A City of Milwaukee snowplow. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Here’s the doomsday scenario.

A large snowstorm hits Milwaukee and the Department of Public Works finds itself with more snowplows than it has drivers. Sustained freezing temperatures make it impossible to clear the mess given the delay caused by the staffing shortage. Then another snowstorm hits and the problem compounds itself. Repeat ad nauseam until spring.

And while mother nature controls when the plows will be needed, DPW is already warning that it might not be able to deploy its full fleet when nature calls.

“We will probably see some issues with snowplow drivers,” said DPW director of operations Danielle Rodriguez on Sept. 27 to the Public Works Committee. A nationwide shortage of commercial drivers’ license (CDL) operators is leaving the city short staffed as it struggles to compete with other municipalities and private companies. “I am trying to find any way I can to mitigate the impact.”

“That scared the hell out of me, what you guys talked about last time,” said Ald. Robert Bauman on Wednesday. Has it improved?

“Right now, we still do have quite a few vacancies,” said Rodriguez. She said out of approximately 350 authorized positions, the department has a shortage of 85 drivers and general laborers.

Bauman asked if DPW is considering raises, bonuses or praying?

“All of the above,” said Rodriguez. Across the two meetings she detailed strategies including bringing back retired drivers, using fill-in supervisors to free up staff, hiring more private contractors and focusing more staff on daytime operations to avoid freezing conditions. In early 2020, when DPW allowed Urban Milwaukee to ride along during a plowing operation, the department had 103 plow-mounted salt trucks and 120 plow-mounted packers (garbage trucks).

“We do have a backstop with hiring Manpower employees,” said Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske. But those temporary employees fill in as laborers, not plow truck drivers.

“Well maybe I’ll be seeing you drive down the street,” said Bauman.

“I’ll have to get my CDL,” said Polenske, a licensed engineer, with a laugh.

“I’ve said it before, I don’t want a Mack truck, but give me a jeep and I’ll drive,” said Ald. Mark Borkowski.

Depending on how things go in the next few weeks, DPW might need to take him up on the offer.

A vaccination push, at least in the short term, has made it more difficult for the city. A full employee vaccination mandate goes into effect Oct. 29, but Rodriguez said the department has lost “a handful” of CDL drivers already as a result.

“How many is a handful?” asked Ald. Russell W. Stamper, II.

“No more than five or six that I know of,” said Rodriguez.

And yet another problem looms.

“Come February the CDL requirements will change, so it will probably be even more difficult to keep and hire qualified individuals because those qualifications will increase,” she said.

Rodriguez said the city struggles to hire and retain drivers for a variety of reasons, including a lack of scheduled raises, no bonuses and required overtime. “There has also been a change in private sector benefits. They are starting to enhance those benefits,” said Rodriguez.

Employees aren’t solely dedicated to snow plowing, they’re assigned to sanitation or other driving roles. Some of those functions have drawbacks.

“Our garbage collection staff and recycling collection staff, they experience a lot of hostility as well,” said Rodriguez of people demanding large item pickup, blocking streets and reckless driving.

She said the city could be more competitive with other municipalities, but that’s not where the employees are primarily going. “We are losing a lot of people to the Waste Managements and Veolias. Private sector, they’re just blowing everyone out of the water it seems,” said the operations director.

“It’s not necessarily so much their starting wage,” said sanitation services manager Rick Meyers. “We’ve had people go to where they make less, but they see defined plans: in year two, you make this, in year four you make this.”

Starting salary for a Milwaukee resident is $41,863 and $40,643 for a non-resident. Applications are being accepted online.

Those that have their own truck can be paid per hour by the city, approximately $150 per hour. “The end loader pays the highest,” said Meyers.

Categories: City Hall, Weekly

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