Ahead of summer construction season, DOH, Parkways Authority still plagued by chronic labor shortage

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The agencies that oversee West Virginia’s roads continue to grapple with an ever-dwindling labor pool for routine maintenance and long-term highway construction projects.

That’s happening even as Gov. Jim Justice promises to mobilize the state’s available resources in an effort to improve the condition of West Virginia’s worsening secondary roads.

The state Division of Highways and the Parkways Authority have similar goals but operate under different management structures. The Parkways Authority oversees the West Virginia Turnpike, while the Division of Highways oversees other state roads.

Each agency is trying to find enough workers.

Transportation Secretary Byrd White, who attended his first meeting of the Parkways Authority board last week, told MetroNews he does not believe the governor’s secondary roads mandate will necessarily require his office to subordinate the concerns of Parkways Authority board members.

Byrd White

“On the DOH side, we’ve costed out most of the things that the county supervisors want, to try to line it up and see how much of it we can get done in a short order. Now, on the Turnpike side, they’ve got a completely separate budget, completely separate arrangement,” he said.

“(The Parkways Authority) is well-run. The Turnpike has been a jewel, in my opinion. The way they maintain their stuff, the way they take care of their roads, they way that they run their business has been extraordinarily good.”

During Thursday’s board meeting, members agreed to a motion requesting permission from the state to allow the Parkways Authority to offer a rate pay matching that of Division of Highways laborers.

White said he agrees with Parkways General Manager Greg Barr’s assertion that an across-the-board pay increase for seasonal workers would help to reverse the year-to-year trend of workers leaving the public sector for higher-paying jobs being offered by private contractors.

“I think it makes perfect sense for us to align our pays scales, as much as we can, for these temporary workers, so we’re not competing with each other. We’re both state agencies,” he said. “Both the DOH, which is under me, and the Parkways, which is under me, need to be coordinated with one another.”

Barr told MetroNews the overall improvement in West Virginia’s economy in recent years has compounded the ongoing seasonal worker shortage, which he said is having a ripple effect within the state’s permanent road construction labor force.

Greg Barr

“We’re not talking about the high school or college student that’s going to work 2-and-a-half months for the summer, between school, or even an intern program that the state has for some college students. These are laborers that are going to work during the entire construction season, April through October,” he said.

“We wanted to hire up to 60, this summer, and we’ve only gotten 24. We pay $9.68 an hour. The fast-food restaurants, now, are paying $11 to $13 an hour. The other important thing is that these temporaries get a lot of good training, while they’re out there working for that six months, and they actually provide the feeder system to fill our full-time positions, as people retire and leave or move on. That’s a good base to hire from. So we want to have a quality pool of temporary folks.”

In October 2017, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill allowing for expedited hiring procedures for the Division of Highways, in order to hire hundreds of employees, as needed.

However, a recent state audit showed that of all 10 Department of Highways districts, none consistently achieved the goal of spending 70 percent of their available funding on core maintenance, a problem partly attributed to an inability by the state to attract enough people to do the work.

In March, Gov. Justice proposed hiring hundreds of temporary workers for a spring roads blitz. The best of those employees, he suggested, could then be kept on for the longer term.