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

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

The spike in COVID-19 cases is affecting positions ranging from firefighters to city bill collectors, limiting services and putting critical service response times at risk. To deal with staffing shortages, some cities in Massachusetts are looking for new hires or asking workers to take extra shifts.

Ahead of Friday’s expected snowstorm, three of Salem’s snow plow operators and two mechanics are out, said David Knowlton, the city’s engineer and utility manager. A tenth of the contractors the city uses are also unavailable due to the pandemic.

“It will take us longer to do what we did last year, just because we don’t have as 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 extra overtime and other shifts to make sure there’s the coverage we need to pick up trash, clear snow, provide emergency services, respond to emergency calls. 911, send appropriate first responders,” Augustus said Thursday. “So all of that is disputed.”

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

“So far we have managed to make things work,” he said. “We are getting closer in some departments. And especially the fire department, we can’t lose too many people and not kind of impact response times. »

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

Salem’s Knowlton promised that, despite snow removal shortages, streets will be cleared after the forecast storm.

“A storm that would take us six hours to fully resolve and have the streets clear, it’s going to take another two or three hours, maybe longer,” he said. “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 fire, can help with plowing this winter. And they’re looking to hire more help.

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

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

Ashley C. Reynolds