CDOT in ‘competition with Wendy’s’ to fill 130 openings on Western Slope

In Pitkin County, CDOT has 13 positions open. That's out of 17 totals positions.

Aspen Times staff report
A Colorado Department of Transportation plow truck clears the way on U.S. Highway 40 at Rabbit Ears Pass in 2022.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today

The Colorado Department of Transportation is short 130 employees on the Western Slope, leaving a crucial region of the state that includes the highly-watched stretch of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon down about 22% of its staff.

In a meeting with Routt County Commissioners on Tuesday, Aug. 30, CDOT officials said the agency has been slow to respond to the current job market, and they are losing out on candidates to fast-food chains that offer better wages.

“We’re in direct competition with Wendy’s as far as the hourly wage goes,” said Spencer Dickey, deputy superintendent of CDOT’s Maintenance Section 6, which includes Rio Blanco, Moffat, Routt, Jackson and Grand counties.

In Craig, where the Wendy’s on Victory Way is currently advertising eight different open positions, CDOT’s barn is short 43% of its staff. Across the state, CDOT is short 20% or more maintenance staff in 25 of Colorado’s 64 counties, including vacancy rates of 36% in Grand Junction and 45% in Denver.

In Pitkin County, “CDOT has 13 vacancies for our maintenance crews based in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and El Jebel,” CDOT employee Elise Thatcher said in an email to The Aspen Times. “That’s out of a total of 17 positions.”

Some key maintenance barns along I-70 from Wolcott to the Eisenhower-Johnson Memorial Tunnel are missing more than half their staff. The barn in Avon is working with a 70% reduction in staff, according to materials shared by CDOT on Tuesday.

“We’re struggling getting applicants even,” said Jason Smith, CDOT Region 3 transportation director. “Some of our positions are open continuously.”

The 130 vacancies are in CDOT’s third region, which is a 15-county area that includes much of the Western Slope north of the San Luis Valley. This area includes more than 5,000 miles of state highway, 13 mountain passes and I-70 from the tunnels to the Utah border.

Colorado Department of transportation officials shared this graphic with Routt County commissioners on Tuesday, showing that 25 of Colorado’s 64 counties have vacancy rates of 20% or higher.
Colorado Department of Transportation/Courtesy image

About 30 of the openings are in CDOT’s engineering sector and another 100 in maintenance, Smith said. He said low wages and housing affordability are two big issues the agency is working to overcome.

“It’s one thing if you can afford it, but is it even available?” he asked when discussing employee gaps due to the lack of affordable housing in a meeting with Pitkin County Board of Commissioners on Aug. 23.

While CDOT is looking at increasing wages and finding cheaper housing options for employees — potentially even building some of its own — Smith said the agency has lagged in its response to hiring woes.

“Especially in these resort areas, the costs are not going to go down,” he said. “In some of these places, like in Silverthorne, we’re finding out the average cost of rent per month is pretty much more than we already pay in salary.”

Dickey said a starting plow truck driver and most entry-level positions for CDOT would make just under $3,400 a month, which translates to $19.37 an hour. (Wendy’s is advertising entry-level positions on the West Slope as high as $20 an hour.)

Amid decreased staffing, protocols on I-70 through Glenwood Canyon that put crews on standby during a flood watch, so they are in position to close the roadway if it escalates to a warning are also straining what the agency can get done, Smith said.

“We can be on a watch for hours,” he said, though he noted the canyon has only closed six times this summer, with none of them being for more than a few hours.

To get through these shortages, he said Region 3 has been borrowing from other regions, with crews based in Denver and Greeley helping maintain roads. While that is working now, when the snow flies, they will have their own needs to handle, he said.

Dickey said various areas share maintenance crews in what he called a “gang maintenance” strategy, and, at times, they will push plows east to chase a storm. He said the agency has had to get increasingly creative as staffing has gotten worse. 

One recruitment issue has been reaching younger applicants, who are often looking for set schedules, Dickey said. Many of CDOT’s vacancies require workers to run out and respond to storm events when they happen, and new employees often get assigned graveyard shifts.

“We do have a lot of trouble communicating with the younger applicant, attracting them or finding a way to really express all the opportunities that we have here,” he said. “Being subject to whatever Mother Nature throws at us, yeah, it’s a hard sell at $19.37 an hour.”

Aspen Times Digital Engagement Editor Kristen Mohammadi contributed to this report.