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Mild winter in Northeast Ohio has had major impact on snow plow drivers

Snow fall street
Posted at 11:02 PM, Mar 18, 2023

CLEVELAND — Long, drawn-out winters are nothing new to Northeast Ohio, but this year has been mild. For many, a lack of snowfall doesn't exactly elicit complaints, but one industry has been hit hard by the lack of winter weather and is now dealing with the aftermath of the unseasonal conditions—snow plow drivers.

As some lake effect snow scattered across the Cleveland area Saturday, the ground remained clear. A few end-of-season flakes won't change the underwhelming amount of snow this season has seen in the area.

In Cleveland to date, this year has seen -35.1 inches of snowfall than the average. Akron/Canton has seen -22.3 inches, Mansfield has seen -30.7 inches and Youngstown has seen -39.5 inches of snowfall than the average.

With spring around the corner, snow plow drivers have been left wondering, "what happened to winter?"

"What winter? There's been no snow, I've plowed a total of three times, half a time once, but there's been no snow," said Paul Balukas, owner of Handyman and Snow Plow LLC. "I've never had a year like this. This is the worst year I've ever seen for that. I mean, yeah, we've had some light years—but I never, ever plowed under 12 times a year."

Balukas entered the season worrying about the cost of gas and what that would mean for him having to haul salt around in his truck, not to mention the rising costs from inflation. But as the winter went on, the snow failed to fall and Balukas had a more pressing issue to deal with.

Like many snow plow drivers in the area, business has been slow and it's not something those like Balukas can even travel to make up for.

The entire East has seen a mild winter. New York City has had -25.8 inches of snowfall than the average to date, Boston has had -32.5 inches and Chicago has had -16 inches. Even in Michigan, lower-than-average snowfall has been recorded this year.

"I talked to a friend of mine in Michigan. They plowed twice more than I did. Does that make your year? That probably don't pay your rent," Balukas said.

Many snow removal companies have contracts that are based annually and have a fixed, flat rate for the year. However, Balukas said those contracts are a small part of the industry's income—it's the per-snow jobs that he needs to stay afloat.

"Everybody says, 'Well, you made out like a bandit on the contracts.' I said, 'Not really the case.' Contract money repairs the truck for next year. That money doesn't mean anything, it's the pay-per-plows that pay your season," he said. "It's terrible. The only thing I can do this year is fix my truck. I'm in the hole on my living expenses, I'm in the hole on everything else. The only thing I can do is fix my trucks."

From dealing with the lack of income to the other impacts of a mild winter like a surplus of salt that he will have to now pay to store, Balukas is entering the warmer months with uncertainty thanks to the lack of snow.

"I bought a second truck this year to back up my truck. And now I know I'm not sure where I'm going to go from here," he said. "So now next year I'm trying to decide where I go from here. Now I got four pallets of salt, I got an extra truck and somehow I got to pay for all this through the summer."

The struggles facing Balukas may not end this year. The current El Niño-Southern Oscillation, or ENSO, forecast tracking climate pattern indicates that the El Niña is ending and El Niño event could take over for the 2024 winter. That means drier and warmer-than-normal weather in the Northern United States.

All that Balukas can do in that event is stay ready—and wish for a white winter.

"They're saying it's not going to be like snowing like this anymore," Balukas said. "I don't know. But I know this—I'll be here if it snows."

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