The surge in COVID-19 cases across the U.S. this January once again put waste collection workers — and what streets, neighborhoods and cities look like when they can't provide their service on time — in the national spotlight.
Solid Waste Association of North America CEO David Biderman explained in a widely circulated Associated Press report how the uptick in trash following December holidays coinciding with the spread of the omicron variant created a “perfect storm for delayed collection.”
Chuck Stiles, head of the Solid Waste and Recycling Division of the Teamsters union, said that the transmission problem this past month in part stems from employees running out of paid sick days — including for those who may be contracting the virus for a second time — which can result in employees who are knowingly sick showing up to work and exposing others. "These guys were the heroes a year and a half ago," but employers aren't treating them that way now, according to Stiles.
Waste and recycling companies and public sector agencies had been following the progression of U.S. OSHA's emergency temporary standard, which sought to mandate that workplaces with 100 or more workers must have employees get vaccinated or get tested weekly for the coronavirus. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court decided earlier this month to stay the standard, or block its implementation.
When asked about current service disruptions, how employers are responding to the OSHA mandate getting blocked, and any strategies employers are implementing to deal with current challenges, National Waste & Recycling Association Vice President of Communications Brandon Wright noted that all association staff are fully vaccinated and said the organization continues to encourage vaccinations across the industry to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The vaccination rate among industry employees is in many cases unknown, but among municipal agencies that track vaccinations, sanitation workers have sometimes lagged other departments. For example, the Dallas Morning News reported last week that Dallas sanitation workers were the least likely among city employees to report getting COVID-19 shots.
More than 50 sanitation employees have been out per week, in recent weeks, according to the sanitation services director. Likewise, in Louisville, Kentucky, where yard waste pickup has been affected, an incomplete report from early January suggested the vaccination rate may be as low as 49% among Solid Waste Management Services.
As January comes to a close, many cities are reporting a decline in COVID-19 cases. That's based on both the positivity rate of people's tests and wastewater surveillance data, including in Boston as well as in Minnesota's Twin Cities area, which was just one example of many regions of the country with waste collection disruptions earlier this month.
Many experts believe that the worst of this omicron wave has passed. Still, below are some of the latest localities with new or ongoing disruptions or updates, as of the last few weeks:
- Atlanta: The city public works department has modified its recycling and yard waste pickup schedule through January in response to COVID-19-worsened staff shortages. (11 ALIVE).
- Bradenton, Florida: “Solid Waste is trying to do the work of 51 people, 20 people short,” said spokeswoman Jeannie Roberts. (Herald Tribune)
- Costa Mesa, California: Trash was reportedly piling up in Costa Mesa as the sanitary district is hobbled by COVID-19 infections. (CBS Los Angeles)
- Fort Collins, Colorado: Area trash haulers, which include Waste Management and Republic Services, have both experienced an increase in COVID-19 cases among employees. (The Coloradoan)
- Fort Wayne, Indiana: The city experienced trash and recycling delays and schedule changes amid virus-related absences among both Red River Waste staff and city public works and utilities staff. (WOWO)
- Greensboro, North Carolina: City officials warned of changes to pickup schedules as the city dealt with a shortage of solid waste drivers, complicated by infections or isolations. (WFMY)
- Los Angeles: LA Sanitation and Environment said earlier this month that 15% of its employees were out due to COVID-19, and that the department was working extra hours and days to address trash pickup delays. (ABC7 Los Angeles)
- Lowell, Massachusetts: The Lowell City Council this month discussed ongoing trash pickup problems in with Waste Management. The pandemic is reportedly one of several factors to blame. (The Sun)
- Myrtle Beach, South Carolina: In recent weeks the city has paused recycling services amid virus-related staff shortages. (WMBF)
- Nashville, Tennessee: Nashville's curbside recycling is set to return in February. It's been on pause since late December as contractor Red River Waste struggles with service reliability exacerbated by the virus, according to city officials. (The Tennessean)
- Peoria, Arizona: The Phoenix-area city's public works department is reportedly facing coronavirus-exacerbated staff shortages. The public works director said the city would cope by paying overtime, combining routes and adjusting shifts of workers who collect other types of trash to ensure residential trash pickup is not disrupted. (AZCentral)
- Portland, Oregon: Waste piled up at trash and recycling transfer stations in the Portland area, as coronavirus-related staff shortages exacerbate other operational challenges caused by winter weather. (FOX12 Oregon)
- Richmond, Virginia: The Central Virginia Waste Management Authority announced customers should expect recycling days as COVID-19 outbreaks have led to staffing shortages. (WRIC)