If Covid strikes highway workers, munies urged to have backup plan for plowing roads

Photo by Tom Rivers: A truck heads east on Telegraph Road in Ridgeway on Jan. 2, 2017 in near whiteout conditions in some spots due to the blowing snow.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 18 November 2020 at 9:39 am

‘We don’t know what’s coming. One day we could have two cases, then the next day there could be 50 after an outbreak. You don’t know what we’re going to be up against.’ – John Papponetti, County DPW commissioner

The local municipal highway departments tend to be small crews, which makes them vulnerable to being shorthanded if Covid-19 strikes, keeping some of the workers home.

John Papponetti, the commissioner of the Orleans County DPW, is urging the 10 towns and four villages to develop contingency plans, where a neighboring municipality may be needed to help plow roads if one town loses staff to Covid.

It may not be seamless because towns have bigger plow trucks than in the villages. Papponetti urged the towns and villages to familiarize neighboring departments with equipment and routes.

“You might have a situation where two to three guys go down,” Papponetti said on Tuesday during a Zoom video conference for the monthly Orleans County Association of Municipalities meeting.

Highway departments may be forced to prioritize plowing and put some roads on the “back burner” due to manpower, Papponetti said.

In a worst-case scenario, if there aren’t enough workers to plow the roads, a travel ban may be issued.

Papponetti said the highway departments should partner with neighboring highway crews to have a plan in place to plow the roads.

“It will really wreak havoc on the traveling public if we can’t keep the roads clear,” he said.

A town may want to have multiple agreements with neighboring towns perhaps taking a section of one town where a highway crew is stricken with Covid.

“As you know we aren’t immune to this virus,” Papponetti said. “We have to plan for that. The better prepared we are, the better we’re able to respond.”

Papponetti said he is concerned with Covid cases spiking locally and in the region. The number of hospitalizations also is on the rise due to Covid, with 15 people from Orleans and Genesee currently in the hospital from Covid.

“We don’t know what’s coming,” Papponetti said. “One day we could have two cases, then the next day there could be 50 after an outbreak. You don’t know what we’re going to be up against.”

The highway employees tend to work closely together. Papponetti said they should wear masks when near other people, maintain social distancing and keep washing their hands.

He has urged his 24 employees to reduce their circle of close contacts as much as possible as Covid cases increase. The highway departments may try staggering arrival and departure times, as well as lunch breaks so the entire department isn’t together at the same time.

Mike Neidert, the Town of Albion highway superintendent, is one of three full-time workers in the department. He said he has more part-time workers lined up this winter if some of his employees are sidelined by Covid.

Neidert said there is a chance the towns could also be asked to fill in for the state Department of Transportation if the DOT loses workers to Covid.

“We’re prepared to do what we have to,” Neidert said. “We’ll cover state roads if we have to.”

A goal in a crisis might just be making the roads passable. The community may need to lower its expectations if the highway crews are depleted due to Covid.

County Legislator Ken DeRoller urged the municipal leaders to work together, across municipal lines, if a town or village is suddenly short-staffed.

“Everybody needs to step up responsibly,” DeRoller said. “Everyone thinks it can’t happen to them, well it can happen to you.”

The municipalities should also discuss ahead of time how a neighboring town or village would be compensated for using its equipment or road salt for another community. One town could use the neighbor’s equipment and supplies but that could mean using unfamiliar equipment.

The highway crews from neighboring towns should consider getting together to go over routes and equipment.

Papponetti said the highway departments enter the winter with uncertainty about Covid.

“We could get through this without a problem or we could see the worst of it,” he said. “We just don’t know.”