Traffic control teams try to remain upbeat while drivers wait
You see them everywhere you go this time of year: flaggers decked out in hard hats and reflective vests, holding paddle signs that impede your forward progress.
“SLOW” is bad enough.
“STOP” is worse, particularly when a dozen vehicles idle between you and the flagger.
“No, no, no,” you mutter or scream, depending on who’s in the passenger seat. “I need to get to ______ (fill in the blank: work, home, the lake, my anger-management therapist).”
If the sign holder flashes a reassuring smile, you might thank Janette Jerauld, owner of Eclipse Traffic Control and Flagging. She appreciates your predicament, and encourages her employees to remain upbeat.
Even if the temperature is 100.
And the flagger is midway through a 16-hour shift.
And drivers are in a foul mood.
And the flagger isn’t allowed to use a cellphone.
Oh, and a co-worker spotted a bear earlier in the day.
With all the road construction, foot races and summer holiday celebrations, this is the busiest season for flagging companies. During a recent interview, Jerauld discussed the challenges her employees face, and why most of the area’s traffic-control companies are owned by women.
S-R: What was your introduction to flagging?
Jerauld: My first job was in 1992.
S-R: Did you have moments 20 years ago when you thought, “What am I doing out here?”
Jerauld: I used to think, “When I get to a certain age, I’m not doing this anymore.”
S-R: And now that you’re of a certain age, do you do it?
Jerauld: I still go out on the road to help my supervisors, and occasionally I’ll stand with a sign.
S-R: What did it take to launch your own company?
Jerauld: A lot of work. This is a tough business. I started out small, working out of my house with two employees and a little Ford Ranger pickup. Now I have a fleet of 27 vehicles.
S-R: What makes this a tough business?
Jerauld: Bidding is very competitive, so you have to watch your costs. Regulations are constantly changing. And it takes a special person to work 16 hours in 100-degree heat. We make sure they’re hydrated and get breaks.
S-R: Have any workers been hurt?
Jerauld: On a job in Lolo, Mont., a motor home lost its brakes coming down the hill and hit one of our flaggers, seriously injuring her. We watch for that stuff all the time, but people do get hurt.
S-R: How about encounters with animals?
Jerauld: On remote projects, yes. Bears and coyotes mostly.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Jerauld: I did – Kathy Cardwell. She had her own company back in the ’90s, and now teaches work zone flagging and traffic control certification at North Idaho College.
S-R: How has technology changed your industry?
Jerauld: With Google Earth we can check out a project’s location before bidding without having to drive there all the time.
S-R: Did the recession affect your business?
Jerauld: We went from around 150 (seasonal) employees to the 80 where we are now. But things are picking up.
S-R: What’s your busy season?
Jerauld: Usually from the first of June until the middle of November. Not a lot of road work goes on in winter.
S-R: What’s the range of your contracts?
Jerauld: From as little as $200 to more than $500,000.
S-R: How much do your flaggers earn?
Jerauld: Depending on the project, anywhere from $10 to $32 an hour.
S-R: What education prepared you to run your own business?
Jerauld: I took some accounting and management classes at North Idaho College, but a lot of it was learning as I went.
S-R: Does being a woman-owned business give you an edge when bidding on government contracts?
Jerauld: It does. Some contracts require a certain percentage of the budget goes to woman- and minority-owned companies.
S-R: How many competitors do you have?
Jerauld: Four or five.
S-R: How many are owned by women?
Jerauld: Probably all of them.
S-R: How about your crews? Mostly men or women?
Jerauld: It’s about equal. When I first started, it was mainly women, but more men are getting into it.
S-R: What qualities do you look for in employees?
Jerauld: They have to be tough-skinned. They have to be able to handle the elements, the public, and to deal with whatever situation comes up.
S-R: Some jobs must get boring. How do they handle that?
Jerauld: They count squirrels. (laugh)
S-R: Can they use cellphones?
Jerauld: We don’t allow cellphones. They’re distracting. Also, we have our employees stand where they won’t have anyone to talk to who might distract them. Flaggers are there to watch the road crews and the public.
S-R: How do they handle rude motorists?
Jerauld: We encourage our flaggers to constantly smile and let the public know we’re sorry for inconveniencing them. Our goal is to get motorists where they need to go as quickly and safely as possible.
S-R: This time of year, do some passers-by offer flaggers cold drinks?
Jerauld: Yes. Friendly people outweigh the ones who are mad.
S-R: Are there common misconceptions of flaggers?
Jerauld: A lot of people say, “I could do that job. All you do is stand around.” They don’t realize all that’s going on and how much responsibility flaggers have.
S-R: What advice would you offer summer motorists?
Jerauld: Give flaggers a break. They realize they’re an inconvenience, but they’re there to protect you.
S-R: Do you still have that old Ranger you started out with?
Jerauld: We finally retired it last year. It had almost 300,000 miles, so we put it to pasture.
S-R: How do you relax?
Jerauld: I go home and turn the phone off.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.