WHATCOM COUNTY, Wash. — It could be an especially bad winter in western Washington if we get significant snow as worker shortages have prompted warnings that there won’t be enough snowplow drivers.
In Whatcom County, there will be just half of the number of snowplow drivers needed this winter, and it’s a problem that will likely impact just about any place that gets snow. They only have 27 of the 52 snowplow drivers needed to get through the winter.
Inside Whatcom County’s New Mexico Tamale Company, the food is always spicy and hot. It’s when things get cold outside that people get concerned.
“We almost had to shut down,” said owner Dora Ruiz. “It was pretty devastating.”
Two years ago heavy snow hit Whatcom County. Ruiz’s restaurant had to shut down for nine days because roads were too slick for customers. She came close to shutting the doors for good.
Icy roads mean a big chill for Ruiz’s business.
“We’ve already been hit below the belt once by weather. Then twice when COVID hit,” Ruiz said. “We’re just gonna have to give it to the higher power and just keep moving.”
Officials at Whatcom County Public Works say they are fully prepared for the winter ahead except for one thing.
“We have the trucks ready,” said Roland Middleton, special projects manager for public works. “We have everything, except we’re missing some folks.”
Middleton says it isn’t vaccine issues keeping workers away – it’s simple economics. The county doesn’t pay drivers as much as private industry.
“They pay seven, eight, $10 an hour more," Middleton said. "It's hard to compete. Even when we hire new drivers, training them can take weeks or months.”
There are 1,000 miles of road in Whatcom County and a heavy snow will likely mean side streets won’t get plowed for days or weeks.
That means people need to start preparing to be house snowbound now.
“For a day or two we’ll be fine, but if we get a long time event we’re gonna be struggling to keep up with the snowfall,” said Middleton.“
The vaccine issue is posing problems for the Washington State Department of Transportation. The department lost more than 400 workers last month when the governor’s vaccine requirement deadline hit.
A total of 127 state troopers were lost, as well.
That could cause issues on the mountain passes and Interstate 5.
In Whatcom County, Middleton says drivers will do their best to keep the arterials open, but people may have to fend for themselves elsewhere.
“We’ll just have to take care of each other,” says Middleton. “More than anything else, look out for your neighbor and we’ll make it through this.”
That’s what Ruiz, the restaurant owner, and her staff are doing – hoping the snow spares them this year.
“If the snow falls we have personal vehicles with four-wheel drive,” she said. “If we have to deliver to homes, we’ll do whatever we need to do at that point.”
Find information on how to prepare for winter snow on Whatcom County's website.