As snow begins to fall in high elevations throughout the state — including early this week in the Methow Valley — the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) is warning drivers to expect reduced operations due to staffing shortages.
The agency outlined the changes drivers can expect in a post to its WSDOT Blog.
“Safety is always our top priority — for those of you traveling and our employees,” the post reads. “Our dedicated crews will absolutely still be out on the roadways, plowing during and after storms as well as preparing and, in some cases, pre-treating roadways before storms.”
WSDOT reports that some roads and passes will likely be closed for longer than normal during storms; that some roads may not get the same level of service they would in previous years; they may have less capacity for 24-hour response; that freeways may only have one or two lanes plowed; and that responses to crashes may be delayed.
Areas with variable speed limits may also have lower speeds, and “secondary routes” and recreation areas will likely get less attention.
According to WSDOT, the agency typically has 1,500 people in winter operations jobs, but has had fewer during the pandemic. At the end of last week, WSDOT had 1,200 people in those positions.
The agency has reportedly faced the same types of worker shortages as others during the pandemic, but also lost nearly 6% of its staff — or 402 employees — due to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
That included 358 employees who were terminated, 35 who retired in lieu of being vaccinated and another nine who retired without stating a reason.
In the WSDOT’s North Central Region, which includes Loup Loup Pass and the North Cascades Highway, 24 employees were terminated and another four retired in lieu of getting vaccinated.
At the time, Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley expressed some concern about plowing on state highways, especially Loup Loup Pass, in light of the losses. In October, WSDOT representatives said they couldn’t yet comment on how staff shortages would affect winter travel.
In the meantime, WSDOT is asking drivers to drive safely and pack winter supplies before they drive anywhere.
“One person driving too fast or not having the proper equipment can close a pass down for everyone,” the WSDOT blog post reads. “In fact, on Snoqualmie Pass most closures are due to crashes and spinouts, not avalanche control work to remove higher mountain snow. So please, be prepared for winter conditions to help keep everyone moving.”