The life of a highway flagger
Precision Highway Contractors Inc. project foreman Mitch Johnson looks through his tool box May 22 while traffic makes it way through the road construction site on U.S. Highway 2 east of Havre.
There are two seasons in Montana, winter and road construction, or so the old joke says.
While construction crews toil away with all manner of heavy equipment on the inside of a construction project and get the recognition for building or repairing the roadways, it's the unsung heroes of the sign crew who orchestrate the dance of workers, machines and travelers, maintaining the balance between progress and safety.
"People think that flagging is such an easy job, you just stand there with the paddle," or stop/slow traffic sign, but this notion is far from the reality of the job, said Kari Dvorak, president and co-owner with Vice President Jason Heitz, of Precision Highway Contractors Inc. out of Billings.
"There's just a whole bunch of logistics that have to fall into place properly for it to work out well and to keep the crews and the traveling public as safe as possible and yet still allow the traffic to flow the best that it can given the fact that we're under construction," Dvorak said.
PHC has the subcontract to maintain the flaggers and signage east of Havre on the current U.S. Highway 2 road construction project. This project is spearheaded by M.A. DeAtley Construction Inc., the prime contractor, out of Clarkston, Washington.
"You have to watch all around you," said Dorothy Klein, a flagger for PHC who lives in Dutton when not out on a job, adding that flaggers also keep track of what's being said on the radio about other parts of the construction site they can't even see.
Aside from the weather, especially the heat of high summer, the biggest challenge on the job is when the construction work gets congested into one area, she said.
"(Construction crews) get in one spot and just stay there so you have to watch for everybody. You have to watch out for the traffic, you have to watch out for the workers and yourself, plus your other co-workers," Klein said.
All this has to be done without holding up traffic for longer than the legal limit of 15 minutes.
"It can be hectic," she said.
Still, she added, "I love working this work. I was in an office for 25 years."
Klein said she started flagging six years ago when her place of employment shut down. She said she took the flagger certification class at the urging of her daughter and hasn't looked back since. She has been working toward getting checked out as a heavy equipment operator, getting operator work whenever possible.
Larry Abrahamson, who frequently drives the pilot car on this project, was working for the city of Malta when he heard about a flagger class, got his certification and started flagging seven years ago.
As a pilot car driver for the flag crew, he said he drives about 500 miles per day, like an Indianapolis 500 open-wheel racer, only his race is back and forth through the construction site at 25 mph.
"I like it better than working for the city," he said, adding that he gets paid about the same in a week on a flagging crew as he did in a month at his previous job.
"There's two or three different flagging outfits I go with all the time," he said, living in his van for the summer.
Abrahamson said he used to live in a motorhome that he would drive to the job sites, but downsized when that got too expensive and when he worked on or near the Bakken oil fields where he had a hard time finding a place to park.
While Abrahamson takes his home out on the road with him, flagger Caroline Johnson said she rents motel rooms at job sites where she has intermittent work, like this one in Havre, but will rent an apartment or small house if she's working a longer project in a place she likes.
"It's cheaper to move" and stay where you have regular work, she said.
Johnson, who lived on the Hi-Line in Havre and Chester before starting in construction, said she's been flagging for eight or nine years.
"It pays the bills," she said. "And I have insurance and a little bit of retirement," which she didn't have waitressing for 15 years before this, she added.
Though Johnson said she's "ready to have a home with a yard and some flowers" again, in the meantime, she's working as many hours as she can.
And Mitch Johnson is the guy who helps make that happen on this job site.
As PHC's traffic control foreman for the project, Johnson - no relation to Caroline Johnson - said he contacts the labor union to get flaggers for the project.
His job involves a lot of paperwork, he said, in part because he has to carefully track the hours his people work so they get enough days in a row on the site to make the travel worthwhile, but not so many that they run into their 40-hour per week limit in the middle of a shift.
The flaggers, however, are just one aspect of traffic control on a road construction project, said Johnson.
PHC is responsible for every piece of equipment that directs traffic into and through the site, Johnson said, including stop and other directional signs, cones, barricades and delineaters, along with flaggers and pilot cars.
As foreman, Johnson is responsible for getting all that equipment in place throughout the day. He is at the project site, commonly, two hours before the construction crews start and again after they leave, setting up or changing traffic control signs and markers.
This means that he may arrive on site at 4 a.m. and leave at 9 p.m., he said. He also meets with the DeAtley crew in the morning to get briefed on the day's expected workload.
Each flagger, pilot car driver, and piece of equipment used to direct traffic is assigned a number of cost units, and those units are tracked each day for billing. This is the other part of Johnson's paperwork responsibilities.
For example, Johnson said, barricades are worth 168 units per day, barrels are 8, cones are 4 and delineaters are 16. The flashing signs are 12 units per hour. Use of all of these items is recorded daily, and their unit price calculated for billing purposes.
Even the flaggers and pilot car drivers are paid based on units per hour according to what is commonly called Davis-Bacon pay, referring to the Davis-Bacon Act of 1931 that governs payment of laborers and mechanics employed by contractors and subcontractors on public works projects.
The state sets the required Davis-Bacon pay in the construction project proposal said Dvorak. And that state pay rate is based on the zone in which the project is located.
A Zone 1 project, like this one, said Johnson, is within 30 miles of the local courthouse. Zone 2 is the next 30 miles out and Zone 3 is beyond that.
Zone 3 projects pay the most because they are the farthest from the amenities of a major town or city.
Estimates for project bids are based in large part on projected use of units for each project, as well as travel.
Communication is the key to keeping a project this size running smoothly, said both Johnson and Dvorak.
The work changes daily and even hourly, said Johnson, so communication about what changes are upcoming and what flaggers need to be doing or watching out for is important.
For Dvorak, communication means keeping track of the bigger picture.
She said it helps to know the prime contractor, as well.
This is the fourth project PHC has worked on with M.A. DeAtley, she said.
"We all have our own way of doing things, (and) that's definitely an advantage when you've done multiple jobs with a prime contractor. You kind of learn how they work for the most part," she said.
But the bigger picture includes checking in at all the company's project sites, as well. Dvorak or her partner checks in on each crew every few weeks or so to see if they need to do anything to help make the job go more smoothly for the foreman and crew.
However, she said, the PHC employees, like Johnson and his flaggers and pilot car drivers, are on-site doing what needs to be done no matter the obstacles, such as the rain storm that blew through the area Tuesday afternoon with 51 mph wind gusts and almost eight-tenths of an inch of rain falling in fewer than 20 minutes in the project area.
"There's a huge amount of trust that goes there," Dvorak said.
"They are so dedicated to their jobs," she said, and no matter the weather or other problems, "they stand out there and make sure that it's safe for people to get through."