COVID-19 infections hit local government services, including snow removal

Local state governments are short of staff as employees test positive for the coronavirus or have to self-isolate after exposure.

The upsurge in COVID-19 cases is affecting jobs ranging from firefighters to municipal bill collectors, limiting services and endangering response times for critical services. To deal with staff shortages, some towns in Massachusetts are looking for new hires or asking workers to take extra shifts.

Ahead of the snowstorm forecast on Friday, three of Salem’s plow operators and two mechanics are absent, said David Knowlton, engineer and director of the city’s utilities. A tenth of the contractors the city uses are also unavailable due to the pandemic.

“It’s going to take us longer to do what we did last year, just because we don’t have that much body,” Knowlton said.

In Worcester, City Manager Ed Augustus estimated that some 400 city employees are currently absent, straining city operations.

“People have to work overtime and other shifts to make sure there is the coverage we need to pick up trash, remove snow, provide emergency services, answer 911 calls, send the appropriate first responders, ”Augustus said Thursday. “So this is all called into question. “

These include 260 Worcester school employees, around 60 firefighters and 40 police officers, according to Augustus.

“So far we have been successful in making things work,” he said. “We are getting closer in certain departments. And in particular the firefighters, we cannot lose too many people and not have, in some way, an impact on response times. “

The virus has also hit the Worcester office where residents can pay their taxes and water bills in person. With only one employee able to work on Wednesday, the office closed on walk-in service and moved on by appointment only.

Knowlton of Salem has promised that despite the shortages related to snow removal, the streets will be cleared after the forecast storm.

“A storm that would take us six hours to completely resolve and clean the streets, it’s going to take another two or three hours, maybe more,” he said. “Just be patient with us and we’ll get the job done. “

To keep operations going, Salem is looking to see if other city departments, like police and firefighters, can help with snow removal this winter. And they are looking to hire more help.

“We are always looking to bring in other people to help us with our snow operations, whether they are retirees or people in the community who can drive a van and have already cleared snow to come and use our vehicles,” he said.

And, he says, he hopes for a light winter.