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Warm start to winter strains snow removal work

Three black men dressed in bright safety gear shovel snow in a driveway. The ground is covered with snow.
Lina Tran
The YardBarberz shovel snow at a house in northwest Milwaukee in late January. It was the second time they've gone out all season.

Weather-wise, this past January was a weird one for Milwaukee. It was relatively balmy, and — up until the last weekend — there was hardly any snow.

Local snow removal companies were feeling the impact of our warming winters. With climate change, they face an uncertain future.

I caught up with the YardBarberz on West Appleton Avenue in northwest Milwaukee. They’re a yard maintenance company. In the summer, they’ve got your lawns. In winter, they remove snow. But for weeks, it was so warm, they haven’t had any work.

It was the last weekend of January — and the first real snow of the month. Elamin Abdullah is the owner of YardBarberz, and he was using the flurry to train new employees.

“We’re coming back through, and I’m just showing them [how] to fine-tune, the quality of the service that they’re supposed to be providing,” Abdullah said.

Donning highlighter-yellow safety gear, the crew rolled through a roster of houses, salting driveways and shoveling sidewalks.

It was only the second time Abdullah and his crew have gone out all season. After weeks of eagerly checking the forecast, the work was a welcome change.

“Three years ago, we got snow on October 31,” Abdullah said. “Can you imagine? We went through November with no snow, we went through practically all of December with now snow.”

The lack of snow means Abdullah has struggled to keep his staff. There’s not enough work for them. This year, he has two crews, each with three guys. Last year, he had three crews.

“I had to let go of half of my customer base,” he said. “I couldn’t retain them. Last year, I had over 110 accounts. This year, my accounts are down to 45.”

There’s one upside this year, though. Most of the accounts he does have are houses with one rental company. That company offered maintenance work to some of Abdullah’s employees, for when they don’t have winter work.

As a business owner, Abdullah said he loves providing people with employment, skills, and income.

When the snow doesn’t fall, he feels the weight of that responsibility. He worries about climate change: According to a recent Climate Central report, the average winter temperature in Milwaukee has warmed 6.1 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970, making it one of the fastest-warming winters in the country.

“The longer it takes for snow to come, the bigger the strain it is on them getting money in their pocket,” Abdullah said.

Clark Evans, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said the first few weeks of the year were the warmest start to January on record for Milwaukee and most of southeast Wisconsin. The region experienced a normal amount of precipitation. It just wasn’t cold enough to turn that moisture into snow.

The weird weather can be linked to a couple things. Partly, it has to do with vast weather patterns that span the hemisphere.

“That kept all of the Arctic air that we would typically see in our region in January bottled-up at very high latitudes near the Arctic Circle,” Evans said. “While it certainly wasn’t summer warm, it was unseasonably warm for January.”

On top of that, as the jet stream battered California with rain during the first half of the month, it sent warmer, moist air from the Pacific Ocean our way.

Evans said the kind of January we just had — pretty warm, not so snowy — will likely become more typical in the future, as Wisconsin’s winters keep warming.

“That’s not to say that it will always occur and that there won’t be cold months in the future,” Evans said. “Just the distribution of how many January’s are cold and snowy versus how many January’s are warmer and rainier will skew more toward the warmer and rainier in the future than they have in the past.”

Three black men dressed in bright green safety gear smile at the camera. One man props his foot up on a shovel, another man holds a salt bucket.
Lina Tran
From left to right, Dorian Letherwood, Elamin Abdullah, and Jonathan Parr take a quick break before heading to the next house in their rounds.

Given all that, Abdullah figures it might be time to think about indoor work.

“I’m trying to constantly be innovative to find ways to keep these guys busy,” he said, speaking of his crew. “I got an idea that I’m working with right now that I’m like, ‘If I could get this off the ground, this would be a way that I can keep my guys busy in the wintertime.' Because it’s an indoor business.”

He’s keeping his idea under wraps for now.

As for Jonathan Parr, one of Abdullah’s workers, he loves being out on a snow day. He was born in January. Given his zodiac sign, snow doesn’t faze him: “Capricorn.”

All month, Parr has been praying for snow.

“Praying it come, and it’s here now,” Parr said. “I got what I prayed for.”

His crewmate, Dorian Letherwood — not so much.

“I was born in May, so I don’t really like the cold,” he said. “But I don’t mind working and I like physical work.”

The snow began to fall faster and thicker; there was more work to do. The crew loaded back into their trucks for the next house. Just like that, they were off.

Editor's note: WUWM is a service of UW-Milwaukee.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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