Months before Anchorage got hammered with back-to-back-to-back heavy snowfalls, the union covering the city’s snowplow operators told Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration in the course of contract negotiations that they had a problem.
“We literally let them know at the table that we were destined to fail with the vacancies we had at the time. We literally had never seen vacancies like that in the department since the days of the pipeline,” said Jason Alward, the district representative for International Union of Operating Engineers Local 302, whose members include the equipment operators who run the municipality’s plows and graders.
Alward spoke to members of the Anchorage Assembly during a committee meeting on Wednesday, describing some of the longstanding staffing and retention problems in the city’s street maintenance section.
“Our crisis right now in the department is that we’re at about a 20% shortfall in staffing,” Alward said. “We’ve seen guys in the middle of their careers leave this department, and that never happened in the past, ever.”
Alward called the issue a “five-headed dragon” with no one specific cause, and said the issues go back at least as far as Mayor Dan Sullivan’s administration, when the size of the street maintenance operation that handles snow removal began to steadily dwindle.
“It’s been a long, slow train wreck coming,” Alward said. “I don’t want to blame any one administration.”
The long-term trend of an eroding plow fleet got hit with a double-whammy this year: record-breaking snow events early in the season, and a national economy flush with federal relief and infrastructure spending that is pulling skilled laborers into competing sectors, often with better compensation. During the years Alward worked as an equipment operator, the street maintenance section had 85 to 90 employees on hand for winter plowing. At a news conference Monday, Bronson said the city had 60 drivers.
In a low snow year, Alward said, that might have sufficed, but not with the winter wallops hitting in quick succession this December.
“I’d call this an emergency. We’ve shut school down four days in a row, that’s catastrophic,” Alward said during an interview Wednesday.
The next day, following a third heavy snowfall, the Anchorage School District closed for a fifth day. On Friday, schools were closed again.
The disruptions have been severe enough to come up in opening remarks at the Anchorage Assembly’s regular meeting Tuesday.
“The recent snowstorms have made clear that despite being a winter city, the municipality is not equipped to deal with a significant snow event,” said Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance in prepared remarks. “I urge Mayor Bronson, for the sake of public safety, our schools, and our economy: Fix this problem so we’re not in this situation again where streets remain impassable for days and schools and businesses are closed down.”
LaFrance said the Assembly is open to adding supplemental appropriations to the city departments in charge of snow removal, and faulted the administration for not sharing information earlier about problems it had been made aware of.
“Our ability to help is limited if we’re not informed of the issues facing the municipality. It was only during the budget deliberations that the administration shared the extent of the challenges facing the Maintenance and Operations Department,” LaFrance said, referring to a hearing at the end of November where the issue came up. “If more funds are needed, I hope to see a proposal from the mayor very soon.”
Some of the main issues, according to the union, are low starting pay for entry-level operators, who under the city’s requirements must have a commercial driver’s license. It also takes the municipality four to six weeks to hire new employees, which in a severe weather event is overly burdensome. Even though plowing operations are 24/7, the city’s equipment repair shop runs a more conventional five-day-a-week schedule, which means a busted grader might sit unused overnight or all weekend long even when it’s badly needed.
Several of the city’s 30 graders were out of commission last week during the first big snowstorm. As of Thursday, 23 were working, with several others waiting on parts from the Lower 48 to arrive before repairs could be made.
According to Alward, the union has 258 members currently on its “out of work” list, meaning they are qualified and trained for handling the various equipment involved in plowing and clearing roads. But at the current wages offered by the city, which start at $21.23 an hour without benefits, he said, it’s not worth their time, especially since many have invested thousands of dollars and weeks of time to obtain commercial driver’s licenses.
“With these out-of-date wages, filling these positions is nearly impossible,” Alward said.
‘The administration was not hiding under a rock’
“We respect their concerns and the points they made,” said Hans Rodvik, deputy communications director for the mayor’s office. “We’ve been very results-oriented on getting more guys into the seats.”
The administration declined the Anchorage Daily News’ requests to speak with Bronson and Municipal Manager Amy Demboski.
“The administration was not hiding under a rock. I think everyone knows that nationwide there’s been a shortage of CDL drivers,” Rodvik said. “We’ve been aggressively trying to recruit and retain people and bring people on board.”
In a video released on social media Thursday, Bronson provided an update on adjustments in plowing logistics, which have included running single graders to clear streets faster, rather than the more time-consuming norm of running the equipment in pairs for more comprehensive clearance.
“There’s some on the Assembly that have been playing politics with these snowfalls. I just want to set the record straight: There’s no such thing as red snow or blue snow or Republican snow or Democrat snow. There’s only white snow, and it’s all impacting us,” Bronson said. “Let’s stay united as a community and work together to dig out of this historic snowfall.”
The municipality has received about half its average annual snowfall total in under two weeks’ time.
During a press event Monday, Bronson outlined efforts to add capacity to the snow removal system by bringing on extra plow drivers by coordinating among various union groups and a memorandum of agreement with the Anchorage School District that would put their equipment on municipal streets. As of Friday, the city was still reviewing a potential arrangement with the school district, but the municipality brought “5-6 additional contract graders” and five trucks from the Parks and Recreation department to help reduce berms in front of driveways.
“The ongoing residential plow out will continue with single graders,” Rodvik said. “Street Maintenance crews have plowed all the Municipally owned main roads following the snow fall that happened Wednesday night/Thursday morning. Plowing is underway in residential neighborhoods.”
The city says it is working with “over 30 contractor trucks” to clear streets downtown, and began hauling away snow from major arterial streets.
“We will begin the widening and hauling efforts in residential areas as soon as residential areas are plowed out,” Rodvik said.
‘All municipal departments will remain open’
The administration is also trying to keep city functions open and online in spite of hazardous road conditions.
In a Tuesday night email to city department heads noting the third winter storm’s forecast, Municipal Manager Demboski wrote in bold, underlined and highlighted text that “all municipal departments will remain open.”
“If employees cannot make it in on time and you cannot staff, or safely open, your building/public facing operations, Directors may delay the opening of the public facing operation until sufficient staff arrive to open, but you may not direct staff to report late,” Demboski wrote in the email, a copy of which was obtained by the Anchorage Daily News.
Staff unable to make it to their jobs in person and ineligible for remote work would need to use leave. Adjustments to operations or service cancellations needed to be relayed to Demboski and the mayor’s communications staff, according to the email.
While state offices and the school district were closed Thursday, city offices remained open.
“When I learned about the strict policy from the 8th floor demanding all workers report to their offices, I immediately thought of the risk the municipal manager and mayor are putting the workforce in during this dangerous weather cycle. Even the state of Alaska executive branch closed for the day,” said Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant, referring to the mayor’s office on the eighth floor of City Hall.
“The municipality’s job, obviously, is to keep the city running. Amy’s email was sent to let folks know,” Rodvik said.
City, state and private crews will catch a break: The forecast for Anchorage and Southcentral Alaska shows low temperatures and no significant precipitation over the next few days.