When Gene Schimmele and Jim Godfrey take a road trip, we all see the results. The Local 221 members are veterans of one of MnDOT’s most-specialized crews. They’re among three dozen workers who keep motorists safe by painting lane stripes on every state, U.S., and interstate highway in Minnesota.
In a typical year, the state’s seven crews stripe 16,000-18,000 lane miles, says Brad Lechtenberg, who coordinates MnDOT’s striping division. That’s the equivalent of painting shoulder lines, center lines, and lane dividers along the state’s entire border – 10 times.
Striping crews do plowing and other regular duties in their off-season. But come mid-April, they fan out across the state. The department’s eight districts decide which roads get striped when. Some highways are painted every year. Others are on a longer cycle, usually three to four years. Districts also decide whether it’s more cost-efficient to give the job to the state, or to a private contractor.
MnDOT operates two epoxy crews (based in Duluth and the Metro) and five latex crews (based in Crookston, the Metro, Rochester, St. Cloud and Willmar).
Calling their own shots
Once they know their seasonal workload, the crews make most of their own decisions, Lechtenberg says. They know their assignments, know their costs, and make their own calls on how to schedule their workweek, when to travel, when to put in overtime, and when to call it a day, he says. They order their own supplies, and do their own repairs and maintenance.
“It’s their operation,” Lechtenberg says. “They have ownership in that. They don’t have someone looking over shoulder.”
In the end, Godfrey says, “we’re the crew. We’re going to hear about it if something goes wrong.”
Schimmele and Godfrey have been on paint crews since the 1980s. They have worked together since 1997. They are based in the Metro district, but work in every corner of the state.
“We fire up 5:30 in the morning every Monday,” says Schimmele, who is the crew chief. “We work a lot of times till 9:30, 10 o’clock at night. We go home Thursday, but a lot of weeks we don’t pull in till 11 o’clock at night – and it has been later.”
Not a life for everyone
Crews see the pluses and minuses of the schedule they live. “You can make money because you put in a lot of overtime,” Schimmele says. “You’re able to go around, see different parts of the state, get to know a lot more people.”
“Out here,” Godfrey says. “you get away from 90 percent of the nonsense you have to deal with back at the shop. You hear about it, but you don’t have to face it.”
But the travel is not without sacrifices.
“A guy is going to have to want to do it,” Godfrey says. “It’s a good job, but it’s not easy on the family. We do this all summer. Working out of town is not for everyone. Most find that out. You miss a lot.”
“You live on the road,” Schimmele says. “You work and eat and sleep. That’s it, more or less. In the old days, you sometimes had a lot of fun out at night. You can’t do that anymore.”
A good crew
Schimmele and Godfrey have trained a lot of crew members, and seen quite a few wash out, too. “Usually, you can see in two weeks if they going to make it,” Godfrey says.
“You get a good team together, everyone knows what to do,” Schimmele says.
Right now, the Metro crew is in transition. Schimmele and Godfrey expect to retire in next few years. So, they began turning paint truck duties over to Nam Ly and Bob Leary last season. By next season, when the crew trades in its 15-year-old truck for a new one, “it will be their truck,” Schimmele says.
“It’s hard to get a bunch that works well together,” Godfrey says. “We’re always trying to get people who fit. These guys are good.”