More than three months into a declared pandemic, the industry's public and private sector service providers say they are adapting to live with the effects of coronavirus far into the future.
During multiple sessions at last week's virtual SWANApalooza, leaders shared insights into how their operations weathered the initial months, as well as what is coming next. As they work toward achieving some new sense of normalcy, many say they are focusing on taking care of employees, tightening budgets and preparing to make long-term changes in how they do business.
Earlier this year, many operators pivoted to more robust cleaning procedures, new social distancing practices and increased distribution of personal protective equipment. While those steps remain ongoing, speakers emphasized flexibility and employee engagement as key factors in how they've weathered the pandemic to date.
"At a certain point, we had nearly 20% of the force out sick and so it was really requiring a lot of everyone else who was still here to shore up the difference," said Kathryn Garcia, commissioner of New York's Department of Sanitation (DSNY).
DSNY is believed to be among the most affected operations in the industry, with at least 633 confirmed cases and multiple deaths to date. That trend of new cases largely ended as of June. According to Garcia, the agency implemented new cleaning procedures in late February, adjusted start times earlier to reduce exposure to the public, and began distributing masks following federal guidance.
Open dialogue with local unions was described as especially important, because it allowed DSNY to temporarily make changes to working locations or duties based on safety needs versus seniority. Aside from temporarily running longer shifts at some of the city's marine transfer stations, and some delays in collection service, Garcia said disruptions were relatively limited, despite the high absence rate.
For Waste Connections, which reported taking the precautions advised by industry groups and government officials, CEO Worthing Jackman said making sure people stayed home was a key focus.
"Pay people not to work," he said, referring to quarantines and other factors. "Whether you need to stay at home to be safe for your family or keep your fellow employees safe, I think we've all learned to pay for that."
Maintaining a heightened focus on employee health was a frequent point of advice, especially for those who can't do their work remotely.
"Your equipment's not getting sick, it's the people. So the focus really should be people driven," said Tom Koutroulis, director of Orange County Waste & Recycling in California.
He advised that communications remain open and ongoing with employees about the new best management practices (BMPs) expected.
"[Y]ou hope that they take these BMPs and use them at home, because we can only do what we can at work," said Koutroulis. "It's about instilling real change and without our interaction, our support, it's going to be difficult to make that change happen in the short amount of time that we need it to happen."
In addition to monitoring physical health signs it's similarly important to be aware of employees' mental health, Lubbock, Texas Solid Waste Director Brenda Haney said. Even for those not directly affected by the virus, she said, the ongoing stress and anxiety can have consequences.
Adding to the stress of protecting employees while maintaining service levels, operators in various sectors are also experiencing new fiscal challenges.
Building off the company's Q1 earnings report, Jackman reported a range of evolving factors for Waste Connections. While volumes dropped in New York by more than 90% "almost overnight," and effects were notable in other parts of the Northeast and Canada, he said in some markets "you wouldn’t know a pandemic is out there." Jackman reported that about 50% of customers who temporarily reduced or suspended pick-ups have reached out to increase service levels.
Unlike large private sector operators such as Waste Connections, the public sector outlook appears much more challenging.
"The city as a whole is confronting sort of a fiscal cliff," said DSNY's Garcia, pointing to a reduction in head count and cuts to programs such as curbside organics collection. "We have had to take a lot of very significant cuts, but I remain cautiously optimistic that the federal government will step in."
New York is far from the only municipality facing this challenge. SCS Engineers Vice President Michelle Leonard reported her firm is hearing related concerns from municipal customers, prompting some to try and cut spending on consulting services and others to ask for more help to replace staff time now lost or directed elsewhere.
Financial effects are even more immediate in some areas, directly affecting basic services at a time when residential waste volumes remain above average.
"What we're having to deal with right now is furloughs rather than sickness," said Shirlene Sitton, director of Santa Fe, New Mexico's Environmental Services Division. "We’re trying to pick up 30% more with fewer workers."
As governments try to manage these issues, speakers also noted it's still important to be judicious in how budget cuts are made.
"Local governments are going to be under fiscal pressure, expenses are up, revenue is down, I don't think that's going to change in the next couple years," said SWANA CEO David Biderman, caveating that changes like New York is making can be hard to reverse. "We have to really be smart about what programmatic changes we make in response to this very serious fiscal environment that we’re all going to be facing going forward."
Seeking a new normal
As the industry continues adapting to new precautions, many speakers anticipated the coronavirus could bring some permanent operational changes and accelerate other ongoing trends.
Making operations more resilient through technology came up repeatedly as a key solution that allows supervisors to track route progress remotely and employees to cover for each other during absences.
"We have dispatchers, we have clerks, we have managers, we have many other folks that we can protect" with remote solutions, said Conor Riffle, vice president of Rubicon's smart cities division, adding that now is the time to ask "Are your routes on paper or are they in drivers' heads?"
Revisiting remote work policies and capabilities was another running theme from multiple speakers, especially since the practice was previously less common among many public sector employers.
"We have to be thinking about how we provide resources to individual entities so they can do a safe [return] back to the office," said Biderman, predicting it could be a "very long time" until general office attendance reaches prior levels.
Looking at frontline workers, analysts and executives anticipate the recent reduction in overtime spending could continue and expenses will be tighter moving forward.
Large private sector companies expect they will "end up leaner coming out of this and as such a little more profitable," said Stifel Managing Director Michael E. Hoffman. While Hoffman said the message he's heard from those companies is "this isn’t quite as bad as I thought it was going to be," and service cancellation rates are still lower than anticipated, the economic recovery will be a gradual process.
Hoffman also anticipates the pandemic may direct new attention to automated collection technology as a way to improve safety and reduce worker exposure.
"I think there's a great opportunity here to make that next move on automated side-loaders and move away from the rear-loader where we can, which we all know is not that safe," he said.
Jackman anticipated a similar push toward automation in both MRFs and collection routes.
"If a helper comes in and pops hot, or a driver pops hot, you start influencing more people than you should be influencing in a pandemic type world," he said. "To continue the migration from two and three-man routes to automated is important."