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As Snow Removal Industry Looks to Winter, Challenges Await

Aside from unpredictable weather, labor shortage
remains one of the biggest problems for contractors

By Ken Sturtz

With cold weather settling into Central New York contractors in the snow removal business are preparing for what could be a difficult winter season.

Labor shortages, increasing costs and potential supply issues have combined with the usual unpredictability of winter weather to make the outlook for the upcoming season uncertain.

Of all the issues facing contractors this season the labor shortage has been the biggest so far, according to Martin Tirado, CEO of the Snow & Ice Management Association, based in Wisconsin.

While some contractors are able to compensate with robotics or remotely operated equipment, that technology is far from widespread.

“It’s an industry that’s heavy on labor,” he says. “Everything from heavy machine operators to truck and plow drivers to shoveling.”

As the economy has recovered from the coronavirus pandemic, employers have struggled to keep pace and rushed to fill job openings. With so many businesses hiring, workers have found they have a distinct advantage and are becoming increasingly picky.

The snow removal industry has felt the crunch this year as people choose to work in other fields, Tirado says. It can be physically demanding while working odd hours in the cold and terrible weather. Wage increases haven’t helped much, Tirado says. Contractors in some cities are offering up to $30 an hour in an effort to recruit people for snow shoveling.

“You’re at the point now too where wages and money aren’t the issue,” Tirado says. “The solution is what’s kind of hard to find.”

While the pandemic is responsible for a large share of the labor issues, retirements among the baby boomer generation over the last decade have also contributed. In many cases local contractors have chosen to sell their companies when they retire, leaving customers to find a replacement to do the job.

As a result of the labor shortage, Tirado says service levels are going to be affected and the public should be prepared for potential delays this winter as contractors go without enough help.

Jason Simmons owns D&S Landscaping of CNY. He handles about 80 snow plowing accounts in Oswego and Onondaga counties. Approximately 75% of his contracts are with commercial customers such as fast-food restaurants, gas stations and drugstores.

Simmons, who has 14 employees, says the biggest labor concern every year is finding enough workers to handle sidewalks, which mostly involves running a snowblower. This year the general shortage of labor has left some contractors unable to handle all their business.

“I got calls from some of my other commercial accounts wanting me to take on some more because the people they had couldn’t do the job,” Simmons says.

In his case, Simmons benefits from the fact that many of his snowplow drivers are longtime employees who work for him year-round, driving concrete trucks in the warmer months. He also brings in some retirees to fill the gaps, but says maintaining good relationships with his employees has gone a long way toward keeping turnover down.

“It’s going to be a rough winter for a multitude of reasons,” says Chris Dambach, owner of Industry Standard. “When the snow hits the ground, who’s going to plow it, shovel it?”

Competition for labor extends beyond lawn care and landscaping companies that handle snow removal in the winter, he says. Municipalities also need to fill the ranks of their highway departments before the snow flies.

Dambach started his company as a residential lawn care business a decade ago after sustaining injuries while serving in the Marines. He eventually moved into general construction, ground maintenance and custodial services and began pursuing state and federal government contracts.

His company, which is based in Clay, includes 45 employees spread across several states. They handle several dozen government contracts, including snow removal for most of the Army Reserve centers in New York and Pennsylvania and several Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals in New York and New Jersey.

It takes a tremendous amount of salt to help keep the parking lots and sidewalks at those facilities free of snow and ice. Dambach says his company needs 350 tons of salt for a single VA hospital. He was worried about possible shortages so he placed his order for salt in August.

Simmons says he thinks he’ll have enough salt for the winter, but that could change if there’s a lot of snow this season or if snowfall continues further into spring than normal.
“It all depends on what kind of winter you have,” he says.

Wetter Winter

According to NOAA’s 2021 Winter Outlook, wetter-than-average conditions are expected across parts of the northern United States, including the Great Lakes. A la nina is also developing, which can mean colder weather for the northern U.S. And the Great Lakes are warmer this year thanks to the warm weather over the summer and fall.

Warm water in Lake Ontario combined with cold air blowing over the lake could be a recipe for a lot of lake effect snow. There aren’t any guarantees of course given lake effect snow’s famously fickle nature. Lake effect bands can be narrow and slight changes in wind can cause shifts that leave one area snow free and another digging out for days.

Dambach thinks the warmer lakes will equal a lot of lake effect snow this winter. He says his company has a mix of seasonal contracts and accounts that pay by the trip, which helps spread the risk out if it doesn’t snow or is an especially heavy winter.

Simmons says most of his accounts are seasonal bids, so a mild winter is preferable. But he’s also prepared for a long winter.

His workers are servicing the trucks and adjusting the cutting edges on the plows. He’s also stockpiled spare parts and has a couple spare plows they can hook up if something breaks.

“If you’re going to be in the business you’ve got to have plan A, B and C,” he says.

Featured Image: Truck from Industry Standard of Clay working to remove snow. “It’s going to be a rough winter for a multitude of reasons,” says owner Chris Dambach.