In the months leading up to widespread COVID-19 vaccine availability, groups representing the waste and recycling sector’s frontline workers pushed for priority access, with mixed success in different states. But as of Monday, all U.S. states have made any individual over the age of 16 eligible.
About 212 million doses have been administered across the U.S., according to an update early Monday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with upwards of 132 million people — including half of all U.S. adults — at least partly vaccinated.
Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems, which has roughly 2,500 employees, this month launched a campaign dubbed 'Got The Shot' to raise awareness among workers and customers alike about the growing number of employees receiving the vaccine. CEO John Casella said the campaign was an attempt to be proactive rather than a reaction to pushback or vaccine fears among its workforce.
“It's starting to accelerate now in terms of the number of people each day that are indicating that they've been fully vaccinated,” Casella said, and the company expects significant increases in the weeks to come. In addition to the vaccine being "a big step towards normalcy," he noted another key benefit: Vaccinated workers who want to take vacations this summer will not have to follow quarantine instructions in the six Northeast states in which the company operates.
As of midday Monday, 255 Casella employees had reported being fully vaccinated, Director of Community Engagement Jeff Weld said. About a third of those individuals have engaged with the company’s campaign, such as through sharing on social media.
The company offers four hours off with pay for workers to get vaccinated. Like many other employers, Casella is encouraging but not requiring employees to do so. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said in a letter to industry groups last week that its work regarding which COVID-19 vaccine incentives are allowed is "ongoing."
Republic Services said in an email it remains "committed to ensuring all team members have the information and resources they need" related to vaccinations. Waste Connections, Waste Management and GFL Environmental did not share any updates on vaccinations among their workforces.
Having spoken to members on the topic, Solid Waste Association of North America CEO David Biderman said in an email that “Although some solid waste workers in the United States remain resistant to getting vaccinated, the percentage appears to be declining as many of their co-workers, families, and friends receive vaccines and do not suffer significant side effects." A growing number of employers are offering paid time off, Biderman wrote.
National Waste & Recycling Association spokesperson Brandon Wright added that “NWRA staff is vaccinated and we are encouraging others to do so as well.”
Progress on controlling the pandemic across the country may also affect what materials these companies collect. Broadly speaking, the pandemic prompted a decline in commercial waste volumes and an uptick in residential trash and recycling.
Republic Services released a report Thursday saying that since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s seen a 63% increase in residential cardboard in some markets amid an online shopping boom. Likewise, it reported that increases in drinking, eating and cooking at home contributed to a 17% rise in recycled aluminum, 13% rise in glass, 7% rise in plastic bottles and 20% rise in organic waste, which in addition to food includes yard waste.
First-quarter earnings reports from public companies begin next week and may shed more light on the current state of COVID-19 recovery among customers and workforces.
In the meantime, Casella said that "clearly, until we have the majority of the workforce vaccinated, and the majority of the country vaccinated, we need to continue to make sure that we follow the procedures that we've put in place" and avoid getting lax, ensuring workers remain protected and have the [personal protective equipment] they need. "So we've got to keep our head down until we have a significant portion of the population vaccinated."