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State governments rethink workforce housing during staffing shortage

Posted at 12:13 PM, Jan 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-27 15:46:25-05

FRISCO, Colo. — The Colorado Department of Transportation said it needs workers to live in areas near resort towns that, across the country, have experienced a post-pandemic housing shortage where demand far outgrew supply, making it too expensive for most working-class people. The staffing is critical as the department works to upgrade the state's highways.

In the Traffic Operations Center at the Colorado Department of Transportation headquarters, emergencies come naturally. With eagle eyes, the department looks out on hundreds of miles of highway zigzagging the state.

While they're used to deploying what's needed for an emergency on the road, they're now trying to address low staffing levels.

"There's literally just nowhere else to put maintainers right now or to put essential people because the properties are just exploded in value," said John Lorme, director of maintenance operations at the department. "Anywhere where there's a lot of resort communities, there's challenges with staffing those essential employees," he said.

What is the solution being explored? It's for departments of transportation to get into the house-building business.

Nationwide, there is a highway maintenance shortage, which is manifesting in a shortage of snowplow drivers.

Departments of transportation from Ohio, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming have recently issued warnings that snow clearing may take hours longer than normal due to insufficient staffing.

In Colorado, 20% of their entry-level workforce is vacant. Along with lowering the experience bar, the state concluded that its has to figure out a way to place people around where homes cost nearly $600,000.

"We've realized that it's not only housing affordability, housing availability," Lorme said.

Currently, the department is planning housing projects in two mountain towns. With help from municipalities, they're using state-owned land to build new housing.

In the town of Frisco, where Realtor.com reported the median home was $1.3 million, 22 units will be home to both highway maintenance employees and law enforcement officers.

Workers approved to live here would only pay a couple of hundred dollars a month in maintenance fees.

The Colorado Department if Transportation said no additional taxpayer money will go into this project. Lorme said it's funding housing with money that would have been spent on salaries for workers they currently don't have in hopes of attracting those workers in the future.

This housing idea is unique and Lorme hopes it can be a model for the rest of the country as he's already fielded questions from his peers in other states. He said providing housing to workers that make local economies strong for everyone is important and necessary.

"It's imperative. I think saying crucial is an understatement," he says.