The state is paying private contractors to drive plow trucks and work on road crews in an effort to overcome a chronic shortage of full-time transportation workers in southern Maine.

Roughly 24 contractors are expected to work for Maine Department of Transportation road crews in Freeport, Alfred and Yarmouth through October 2018. The department has had difficulty recruiting and keeping workers in York and Cumberland counties, where a strong economy is siphoning current and potential employees into better-paying municipal and private-sector jobs. The department has about 50 openings.

“We struggled last year to keep plow truck drivers in the seat in the two most populated counties in Maine,” said Dale Doughty, the transportation department’s director of maintenance and operations. “We want to provide the public with the level of service they demand.”

First Vehicle Services, based in Cincinnati, Ohio, was awarded a contract in September to provide 10 year-round hourly workers in both Freeport and Alfred, with a provision to expand to 40 more workers. The department has already asked for four more workers based in Yarmouth.

Contractors use state equipment, vehicles and supplies and are supervised by state employees. First Vehicle Services is a subsidiary of the international transportation company FirstGroup.

The contract can be extended to four years and allows the state to increase or decrease the number of workers it needs, Doughty said.

“The idea is that if things change, it is all reversible,” he said. “We are doing things so we can adjust if we need to.”

Under the terms of the contract, First Vehicle Services is paid $39.87 an hour per worker for a 40-hour work week and $45.80 an hour for overtime.

“That is to the company, not the individual,” Doughty said of the hourly payments. “I don’t know what they pay their people exactly, but it is much less than that.” So far, First Vehicle Services hasn’t been able to fill all the jobs requested, Doughty said.

The company did not respond to an email asking how much crews are paid and whether it had been able to hire enough workers to fill the contract.

MDOT has struggled to adequately staff its highway crews for the past few years. Of the roughly 50 full-time open positions it has now, about half are in southern Maine, Doughty said. The department’s statewide wage range of $13.54 to $18.46 an hour is less than what is offered for municipal crews, private companies and the Maine Turnpike Authority. Hourly wages don’t include compensation such as health care and retirement benefits, or the $1,000 annual winter snowfighter allowance paid to all plow drivers. The department employed roughly 1,150 highway workers last year.

The median wage for a highway maintenance worker is almost $17 in Cumberland County and nearly $21 an hour in York County, according to the Maine Department of Labor. MDOT isn’t allowed to unilaterally offer raises, which have to go through complicated union and legislative negotiations, Doughty said.

Ginette Rivard, interim executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, which represents MDOT highway workers, said the union doesn’t support contracting full-time road crews.

“We would like to see trained and qualified workers stay,” she said. A bill that would have raised the starting hourly wage by $2 was voted down by the Legislative Council and won’t be heard in the new legislative session in January, Rivard said.

“That would have gone a long way to resolve some of the recruitment and retention issues,” she said.

Although the state offers good benefits, some drivers might be attracted to the better wages they can make in the private sector, without the aggravation and stress of winter plowing, Doughty said.

“We have people who leave here and go work for construction for half a year. They really just want cash,” Doughty said.

Ideal staffing is two drivers per plow truck, in order to keep crews fresh and alert during long hours behind the wheel, Doughty said.

To overcome staffing problems in southern Maine last year, the department resorted to bringing in reinforcements from outside the region and putting supervisors and managers behind the wheel during back-to-back storms.

“Our primary mission is to keep the public safe,” Doughty said.

“There is no profession that is more important than this profession,” he said. “That is what drives us. It is partly about being something that is really important to society.”

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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Twitter: @PeteL_McGuire