Snow plowing contractors have more than the weather to fret about this winter.
Some companies are cutting back on customers because they haven’t been able to hire enough workers to drive the trucks.
“We just can’t find the people,” said Kyle Gravel, the owner of Evergreen Yard Care, which has offices in Winslow and Gorham.
Because of the shortage of plow drivers, Gravel said, he’s cutting back on residential plowing and concentrating on his commercial accounts. He said he has kept a small number of residential accounts, if they’re near where he plows for commercial clients.
Other plowing companies are also cutting back and say they’re being squeezed not only by the labor shortage, but also because of rising gasoline and truck prices. Even salt prices are climbing this year, the companies said, with most reporting that they faced increases of 25 percent or more when they factor in supplies.
Gravel said he’s never had a problem hiring seasonal plow drivers before this year and doesn’t believe pay is a factor – he said he pays $18 an hour for qualified drivers.
By comparison, last year was a “cake walk” for hiring, he said.
Gravel said he’s raising prices for his remaining clients by about 5 percent because of his rising costs.
“I’m trying not to sticker shock my clients, but I’m raising prices enough that I can operate my business,” he said.
It’s not surprising that contractors would opt to serve commercial accounts ahead of residential customers, said Josh Flynn, chief executive officer of Portland-based Seabreeze Property Services. Commercial accounts are more lucrative for plowing contractors, he said.
Most of those accounts – businesses that need to have lots and walkways cleared after a snowstorm – sign a new contract in the summer and pay up front, Flynn said. That makes it easier for him to order supplies and repair and replace vehicles before winter sets in, he said.
Flynn said he, too, has faced a bit of a crunch when he needs new workers, but that most of his are full-time, year-round employees, so he’s in reasonable shape for the upcoming winter. Like most property management companies, Seabreeze provides landscaping services three seasons a year and then plowing in the winter.
“We could always use a few extra hands,” Flynn said, but he has enough to feel secure that he can provide plowing to his current roster of clients, most of whom are commercial.
Flynn has a unique strategy for making sure there are no idle hands when the snow doesn’t fall. He offers his workers to volunteer organizations – while continuing to pay them – if times are slow and he’s caught up on maintenance and other non-plowing tasks.
Last year, he sent workers to help out at the Good Shepherd Food Bank.
“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Flynn said. “Just because it doesn’t snow doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the job, and I’m going to pay them anyway, and I would rather have them have an impact. It’s good for the guys, too.”
Flynn said the higher costs he’s seeing means he’s had to raise his plowing rates by anywhere from 5 to 20 percent. He also said he no longer offers multi-year contracts unless they have a clause allowing him to increase rates because his costs are so unpredictable.
Flynn said most people might not be aware of the worker shortage in plowing unless they’ve been dropped as a client by a contractor cutting back, but they will notice if it spreads.
“Wait until the towns start running out of people,” he said.
Gnome Landscaping in Falmouth has had to drop some clients for the upcoming winter because there aren’t enough workers, president Todd Marco said.
“It’s hard to find employees and it’s a lot of hard work to do,” Marco said. He would have liked to add about 20 more workers this winter, Marco said, but was unable to drum up interested applicants even while beefing up his help-wanted advertising and using radio this year for the first time.
Marco said he will probably scale back his client list – he mostly does residential plowing – by about 25 percent.
“It’s hasn’t gone over well” with the dropped customers, he said, but workers were “just hard to find.”
Marco said he will focus more on the other services he provides – including landscaping, masonry and maintenance – at least for the next year and see if hiring goes better next fall.
“We’ve had more work than we’ve had ever,” he said, but not enough workers to take it all on.