This week, The Valley Reporter reached out to town administrators and road foremen about how towns are tackling road maintenance in the face of COVID-19. Here’s the breakdown for each town.
In Waitsfield, no highway employee has been laid off. Of the town’s seven employees, three work less than 40 hours a week now (at 34, 32 and 23.5 hours, respectively). Those who can work remotely are doing so. “Years of building for fiscal sustainability and resiliency have helped in the initial response and mitigating impacts,” said Waitsfield town administrator Trevor Lashua.
All road projects in Waitsfield are still moving forward. In June, the town plans to replace culverts on North Road, which will be a primary detour when the Route 100B bridge closes. The town also plans to replace a large culvert on East Warren Road this year, though the timing has yet to be determined.
“There may be impacts to our capital planning process, which could result in paving/road projects moving in future fiscal years based on available and projected funding. That picture will become clearer as we enter the FY22 budget process in the fall,” said Lashua.
In terms of staying healthy while working during the COVID-19 pandemic, Waitsfield highway workers are following the guidelines of major health organizations, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Vermont Department of Health and others. “No more than two employees are at any work site to ensure social-distancing requirements can be met,” said Lashua.
Despite having a strict set of guidelines, Lashua admitted, there’s an element of uncertainty in guiding highway workers during the pandemic. “How long will executive orders last? What will the workplace look like as we return? How does the economic fallout impact projects of all sorts? Will this happen again?” he asked. “At the same time, we're already thinking of ways to grow, expand, evolve and prepare.”
In Waterbury, four of the town’s eight highway employees have been laid off at the end of this work week. “That will save an additional $2,000 in pay, FICA and retirement,” said Waterbury town manager William Shepeluk.
As for road work, basic road maintenance is continuing. One Waterbury road crew member is working on the road grader to try to put gravel roads back in shape after winter and mud season. Two crew members are filling potholes. The mechanic is repairing equipment. One crew member is starting to mow parks, playing fields and cemeteries.
The town is currently working on replacing three undersized and worn-out culverts on Maple Street. “Our 2020 budget contemplates a $500,000 reclamation paving project on that street this year. New culverts are essential,” said Shepeluk.
Other projects will be postponed and canceled. “Resurfacing gravel roads will be pushed back, if not canceled. We have canceled a $170,000 bridge repair project scheduled for Guptil Road. We will forgo the purchase of a one-ton truck for the highway department. Savings will be about $90,000,” said Shepeluk.
When asked about sanitation and social distancing protocols for the Waterbury road crew, Shepeluk said, “They stay apart.”
In Moretown, all workers were sent home, early in the pandemic, but have recently returned. “I was able to continue working doing mostly grading, for mud, and would alternate calling in employees if I needed help with anything,” said Moretown road foreman Martin Cameron on how the road crew functioned when the pandemic started. “We all started back last week and are doing our best to adhere to safety protocols.”
Nobody was laid off, Cameron clarified. “The town paid us for the time away. We are all back to full-time work, following protocols as closely as possible,” he emphasized.
In Warren, no highway employees were laid off. Instead, they were put on on-call status but were paid during that two-week period. Employees are now back on the job as of April 27.
Additionally, Warren highway employees are following strict health and social distancing protocols set by the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans).
That means staying home if not well, adhering to 6 feet of social distancing, cloth face coverings and easy and frequent access to soap and water or hand sanitizer. Common spaces and equipment, including bathrooms, field offices, frequently touched surfaces and doors, tools and equipment, and vehicles, must to be cleaned and disinfected at the beginning, middle and end of each shift and prior to transfer from one person to another. Finally, no more than two people are allowed to occupy one vehicle when working.
Fayston kept its road crew on the payroll, keeping them on call for three and a half to four weeks, according to select board chair Jared Cadwell. As the governor’s restrictions have loosened, the select board has returned the road crew to about 80 percent of their normal hours.
“As of this week, we expect that they’re going to be close to, if not at full time. They’re doing rotations through the town garage. We’re discouraging the crew from more than one of them working on a piece of equipment, having one work inside the garage and one outside or two working outside,” Cadwell said.
Fayston will be prioritizing its regular summer road projects this week, including road maintenance, grading, new material and ditching. Additionally, they had a couple of projects planned that are grant dependent including stone-lining the ditch on Randell Road, paving a portion of North Fayston Road plus culvert projects and road access to the Boyce Hill Town Forest.
“We don’t know if the state will be able to reimburse us for some of that work,” Cadwell said.
Emails and a phone call seeking updates from the town of Duxbury were not returned.