Mayor Joseph Polisena and Department of Public Works Director Arnold Vecchione urged patience from residents as winter kicks into high gear and plows make their way down the town’s streets.
Polisena lauded Vecchione and his crew for “doing the best he can,” but he said the town isn’t alone in experiencing a shortage of plow drivers. Recent reports from ABC6 and the Valley Breeze have tackled the issue facing several municipalities across the state, pointing out a growing problem in Woonsocket, North Providence and Pawtucket. Johnston is no exception, as Polisena said he has 60 fewer municipal employees than when he took office – a figure he attributed to firings and attrition.
“People want less government because we haven’t had a tax increase in three years, so they’re going to have to be a little more patient,” the mayor said. “You get the chronic complainers, but what bothers me are the people who lie and say that [plows] never went down their road, and that’s not true.”
Polisena said the town has had to offer more money as an incentive, but not just anyone can hit the roads. Drivers have to be insured and possess a commercial driver’s license, or CDL, and the mayor noted he wouldn't hire new DPW workers because that would come with extra healthcare and pension costs.
Vecchione also pointed out the nationwide deficit in truck drivers. He referenced a report from the American Trucking Association this summer that the industry fell 60,000 drivers short of meetings its demand in 2018. That was a nearly 20 percent increase from 2017, when there was a hole of 50,700 drivers.
Now, on a smaller scale, Johnston faces obstacles of its own.
“A lot of people with these pickup trucks and bald tires, they want to work for the town,” Polisena said. “If they don’t have insurance we don't accept it. If something happens, I’m protecting the people. Let them sue their insurance company, not ours. As I said before, Arnie’s got the GPS in his office. He can look on his phone.”
That leaves fewer drivers to handle the 175 miles of road – or 350 miles going both ways, as Vecchione said – across town. GPS, which was recently added to plows in town at a $6,500 price tag, helps track which roads the trucks have covered.
“We do hills first,” Polisena said. “A lot of times, in a big storm – these have all been minor storms, but they’ve been messy storms — what you do is you go down the road once in the center just to clear and then eventually we’ll get back… Now that we have GPS, it’s amazing with GPS. You can tell how many times, how long they were on the road, if the truck stopped. If it’s idling for a long time, so we can tell.”
The mayor opined that he viewed inability to pass drug tests as a reason for the shortfall.
“Everyone’s smoking pot,” Polisena said. “They’re subject to routine drug tests. I had someone that applied for a position and I said to him, ‘Can you pass a drug test?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Can you pass a BCI?’ ‘Yes.’ I sent him for a drug test, I got the drug test back, I said, ‘I’ve got to send this kid to rehab.’ Opioids, it’s just amazing. I don’t understand it. These kids are ruining their lives, ruining their health.”
From a national perspective, the ATA’s summer report said that in order to lure in more drivers, “the industry needs to remove barriers for younger drivers to begin careers, attract more demographic diversity, ease transition for veterans, increase pay, address such lifestyle factors as giving drivers more time at home, and reduce wait times at shipper facilities.”
As for Johnston, Polisena implored citizens to “tone down the vulgarity” when reaching out to Town Hall about whether their streets have been plowed yet.
“We’re not tracking the guys, we’re tracking the work, so when people do call and lie, because they lie a lot of them – a lady was swearing at him this morning, vulgar. Then she tells him, ‘F you’ and hangs up,” Polisena said. “Ninety-nine percent of the people are great, that 1 percent, those people are insane.”
Vecchione said the mixture of straight salt the town uses can be difficult to see on roads, leading residents to believe plows haven’t ventured to their area yet.
“They don’t see the brown in the mixture, they don’t think it’s been done,” Vecchione said. “We hit every road, at least once, maybe twice.”
Polisena stood behind Vecchione and the DPW, saying the drivers are “really good at what they do.”
“I think it’s important for people to know with the winter upon us. Our guys did a magnificent job,” the mayor said. “I get compliments from a lot of people. I get compliments from people who don't live in the town who drive through the town. ‘My roads weren’t half as good coming to work, but in Johnston they’re good.’”