With more than three decades of experience as a heavy equipment operator, Shirley Samuelson is the lone woman on a dedicated Wyoming Department of Transportation team that keeps the roads of Jackson and Teton Pass clear and safe for drivers throughout the long winter season.
“I’m the only woman with Jackson WYDOT and the first in the maintenance crew,” Samuelson said. “It’s been good. The crew has treated me really well.
“There’s no him or her — we just work together as a team.”
Samuelson’s unlikely journey from nurse to an equipment operator for WYDOT began in 1984 while she was working as a nurse, EMT and part-time security guard at an open-pit mine in Caribou County. She decided to accept a full-time position at the mine and soon found herself gaining experience with heavy equipment to perform tasks such as snow removal.
“I’ve done everything from cars and trucks to snow plow equipment,” she said.
That led to similar jobs with other companies until she decided to apply to a year-round position for WYDOT. She was hired in November 2017.
“I was getting tired of seasonal work and decided to give this a shot,” Samuelson said. “It happened at the right time.”
She explained that her work as a nurse also equipped her with skills that she uses in her current job as she melds her experience with helping people, handling emergency situations and operating heavy machinery to be a successful WYDOT employee.
“Number one: I like playing with snow,” Samuelson said. “I have moved a lot of it. It’s a new method, but something that I’ve done a lot of. I’ve always been into emergency work, EMT and search and rescue. This is a people-serving role to keep people moving and traveling in the safest way possible. I like the people service part of it.”
For the first two winter seasons working for WYDOT, Samuelson was responsible for the town route that included snowplowing from Hoback through town and past Wilson. This year she began working on Teton Pass, a challenging stretch of road, as well as the town route, rotating between them every two weeks.
“It is way busier,” Samuelson said of the pass. “There’s a lot more weather up there, a lot more people. You’ve got wind, terrain, avalanches and a lot of people to work with. It’s interesting.”
Samuelson typically works from 1 to 9 p.m., but a 40-hour workweek occurs only when the weather and other variables cooperate. She is on call with no sick days or vacation to use during the winter as part of a team that takes pride in keeping highways open and safe for commuters, tourists and locals.
“If there’s no real active weather then we work five days a week,” she said. “When things get crazy the hours can extend to the next shift. We’ve had some long hours this year.”
During a particularly stormy day Jan. 15 Samuelson put in a 16-hour shift battling strong winds and drifting snow on Teton Pass. She performed snow removal, avalanche mitigation and managed road closures from 1 p.m. to 6 a.m. During a busy season Samuelson works long hours, sometimes with just enough time to take a quick nap between shifts.
“This job timewise has been more demanding than probably any other job I’ve had,” she said.
WYDOT prepares new hires by having them attend an equipment training academy to learn WYDOT procedures and best practices. They also provide separate training opportunities to learn skills such as operating a rotary snowplow, which Samuelson is trained to use to widen roadways and remove snow following an avalanche.
“The academy is good for new hires or even people with experience in different fields,” said Bruce Daigle, WYDOT maintenance foreman.
Samuelson noted that her previous experience made the transition to her new position easier, even as she joined an all-male crew.
“When things get bad all we have to lean on is us,” Samuelson said. “We are on-call all winter pretty much 24/7. We are one team, and we handle whatever comes.”
Daigle said he wanted Samuelson to succeed, and she has proven to be a valuable addition to WYDOT.
“The challenge was bringing in the first woman because you want to make it work, and so far it has,” Daigle said. “She has done a really good job. We encourage anyone willing to pursue a career to get hold of WYDOT and see what it’s about.”
As an equipment operator Samuelson is responsible for myriad tasks, including changing the edges and blades on her machine, which can weigh up to 70 pounds each. Even with the physical work, Samuelson said she performed more heavy lifting as a nurse with moving patients than she does for WYDOT. She has also realized that each operator sometimes struggles with one aspect of the job, but they get their work done, helping each other whenever possible.
“Some days I wonder what I got myself into, but then I realize some of the guys struggle with things, too,” she said.
Despite any challenges that arise as an equipment operator, Samuelson said she prefers being active and outdoors to working a desk job. As a commuter in the past from Star Valley to Jackson, she also understands the importance of keeping roads open for everyone, and she feels fulfilled to help people get to work and home safely.
“Being bottled up in an office is a huge challenge for me,” she said. “I love being outside, and I enjoy working with people.
“I get a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day that everyone arrived safely.”
When winter ends, Samuelson’s work shifts from snow removal to spring, summer and fall tasks such as removing dead animals from roadways, fixing fences and guardrails, directing traffic and installing signs and posts.
“Our winters are so long it can take a while to get to our normal spring activities — we can get started as late as June,” Daigle. Said. “Sometimes there’s a challenge for everyone to get these very varied tasks done. They work a lot of hours without complaints.”
Despite the long hours, heavy lifting and responsibility that comes with her job, Samuelson, 60, continues to enjoy it as she works hard to keep everyone in the valley safe throughout the year.
“I like what I do,” Samuelson said. “There’s nothing more beautiful than the top of the Teton Pass after a storm.”