The U.S. has set new daily COVID-19 case count records in the past week. The spread of the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus during the December holiday season and into the new year affected collection teams and, in some cases, disrupted trash and recycling pickup schedules. It’s a one-two punch: The absences are coming while waste volumes are traditionally higher after the holidays, and winter weather further complicates operations in some parts of the U.S.
Unlike previous case surges, which were more regional, this latest wave has been felt across the country:
- Atlanta: Public Works Commissioner Al Wiggins Jr. said last week that COVID-19 was impacting half of the department's workforce, and the city was working with temp agencies to bring in up to 50 new workers this week. In surrounding Gwinnett County, Republic Services has temporarily suspended recycling, bulky and yard waste pickup, telling customers that about 20% of its workforce is quarantining. Also in Gwinnett, and in Peachtree Corners, Waste Management has suspended bulky and yard waste collection services. Nearby DeKalb County is similarly working to catch up on recycling collection, according to its sanitation department. (WSB-TV, CBS46, Gwinnett Daily Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
- Detroit: COVID-19-related staffing issues are resulting in one- to two-day trash and recycling pickup delays for residents on the West side of Detroit. The Department of Public Works expects teams will be caught up this weekend. (ClickOnDetroit)
- Louisville: Due to a "drastic staffing shortage," the Kentucky city's public works department is suspending curbside yard waste collection until further notice, allowing Christmas tree drop-off sites to serve as yard waste drop-off locations as well. (WDRB)
- Massachusetts: North Shore communities including Beverly, whose hauler is JRM Hauling & Recycling, are experiencing slight delays to trash and recycling pickups. (The Salem News)
- Miami and South Florida: Miami-Dade County's Department of Solid Waste Management last week warned residents of delays to waste collection stemming from "higher than normal employee absences due to the recent rapid spread of COVID." In Fort Lauderdale, Republic Services is reportedly a day behind on pickups. Meanwhile, the St. Lucie County area may also see changes to waste collection schedules as Waste Pro faces pronounced staffing shortages. (News Release, South Florida Sun Sentinel, TCPalm)
- Minneapolis and St. Paul: Some residents in Minnesota's Twin Cities region, served by Waste Management, are facing trash and recycling pickup delays amid a COVID-19 outbreak among drivers. (FOX 9 KMSP)
- New Jersey: Solterra Recycling Solutions' workforce is "severely impacted by COVID" and is warning its customers across Middlesex, Monmouth and Mercer counties that pickup schedules may be delayed. The company says it has reached out to subcontractors for assistance in the coming weeks. (centraljersey.com)
- New Orleans: After a months-long hiatus from curbside recycling following Hurricane Ida, the city was planning to restart service in some areas on the first Monday of the new year. That restart was pushed out by one week in light of more than 30% of drivers being unable to work. (NOLA.com, News Release)
- New York City: Department of Sanitation Commissioner Edward Grayson said Monday the agency has recently been seeing 20% to 25% of workers call out sick, which it’s been combating by expanding shifts and canceling days off. (PIX11)
- Philadelphia: The Streets Department warned Tuesday there are citywide collection delays this week that it expects will continue in the coming weeks as COVID-19 infections and quarantines affect its workforce. (Streets Department)
- Tempe: The Arizona city is telling residents they may experience late trash, recycling or organics pickups as illness-driven absences compound existing staffing challenges. (FOX 10 Phoenix)
- Texas: Recycling pickup routes in Dallas may function at least a day behind schedule the next few weeks, according to city sanitation officials, citing worker COVID-19 infections. In the Houston area, the Waste Management-serviced Woodlands Township is forecasting trash and recycling pickup delays that could extend into next week due to staff shortages. Meanwhile, Community Waste Disposal, which serves nearly 30 North Texas cities, said garbage pickup is delayed by one or two days in some areas as COVID-19 infections limit its workforce. (The Dallas Morning News, Community Impact Newspaper, NBC DFW)
The Solid Waste Association of North America has been monitoring the pandemic's impacts on the industry and its workers, and last month it raised a warning about disruptions from the omicron variant.
SWANA CEO David Biderman noted in an email this week that some sanitation departments are reporting up to a 25% absentee rate, causing delays in the collection of some materials. "Fortunately, we have been through this before, and local governments are [well positioned] to adjust operations,” he said. “The current thinking is that omicron will decline rapidly starting in late January, and if that is correct, we expect operational changes to be temporary.”
Joe Fusco, vice president at Casella Waste Systems, shared in an email that the company has seen positive COVID cases across all areas of its business and geographic footprint in recent weeks.
“It is challenging to find testing sites with capacity to confirm positive tests. Also, for example, some states are providing paid time off mechanisms for impacted employees, other states are not. It has taken a great deal of sustained effort from our operations, benefits, and HR teams to provide guidance to our managers and employees,” Fusco said.
Fusco also noted that Casella established a “critical response team” at the outset of the pandemic consisting of workers “willing to travel to other areas in our operating geography in the event that a particular area was hit with a large number of COVID cases.” Fusco said it is still in place “and has been mobilized a handful of times,” as offering “a high level of customer service in a safe manner remains paramount.”
Waste Management, Republic Services and Waste Connections — the industry's three largest haulers — could not yet be reached for comment about current pandemic impacts on their operations.
As for efforts to further protect against COVID-19 impacts in the workplace, the National Waste & Recycling Association's spokesperson said the group is continuing to watch what's next for potential vaccine mandates. The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Friday for appeals regarding court-ordered stays on Biden administration vaccination or testing mandates for private employers. While some cities have enacted public-sector employee mandates, current vaccination rates within the overall waste and recycling industry are unknown.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week shortened the recommended isolation guidance for people with COVID-19 to five days, a move that could get some essential workers back on the job sooner.
This story has been updated with additional news from Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan and Texas.