The spread of the coronavirus' delta variant in recent weeks and the resurgence of COVID-19 illnesses in many areas of the U.S. have led to some trash pickup or curbside recycling service disruptions that are reminiscent of operational challenges that occurred during earlier times of the pandemic.
“We believe the entire industry should take the threat seriously to ensure that waste and recycling operations continue unabated. And everybody's tired of dealing with this issue, but now is not really the time to let down our guard,” said National Waste & Recycling Association (NWRA) CEO Darrell Smith.
NWRA issued an announcement last week saying it’s implementing a policy that its own employees must be vaccinated. It’s a bid to keep its own staff safe while also encouraging vaccinations in the industry it represents, according to Smith.
A survey of some of NWRA's larger members last week did not reveal issues with disruptions amid the recent delta surge, Smith said. The organization has not promulgated any new or updated safety policies in light of the latest phase of the pandemic, but it likely will discuss potential best practices at NWRA's upcoming safety committee meeting.
At the Solid Waste Association of North America, “We have started to hear from solid waste employers, particularly those in the Sunbelt, that the Delta variant is causing an increase in staff absences in solid waste and sanitation [departments,]” SWANA CEO David Biderman wrote in an email.
Indeed, several local news reports have emerged in recent weeks regarding delayed collection services or the temporary halt of recycling pickup.
Earlier this month, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, newspaper The Advocate reported that both collection truck drivers and landfill workers had caught the delta variant of the coronavirus and had to miss work. In New Orleans, a contracted hauler has been behind on garbage pickups, a situation it says was exacerbated by a COVID-19 outbreak among staff.
In addition to the routine trash pickup service interruptions, municipalities are reporting experiencing impacts to curbside recycling programs. Clay County, Florida; Picayune, Mississippi; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and several parishes in Eastern Louisiana have all reported decisions to suspend curbside recycling service at least partly due to COVID-19's strain on staff availability and the need to prioritize trash pickup service.
In general, Chuck Stiles, director of the Teamsters union's solid waste and recycling division, said that if companies provided greater compensation and benefits to workers, they could quickly shore up their hiring problems.
Some municipalities have taken that approach: Birmingham, Alabama, is reporting that illnesses among Department of Public Works workers have delayed service in parts of the city, and as of Saturday, the city is increasing pay rates for new hires. In St. Louis, the city also recently turned to monetary incentives to help fill open driver positions, offering a $3,000 hiring bonus to new drivers. Bradenton, Florida's Public Works Department is implementing a new bonus structure for employees with commercial drivers licenses who stay for six months, one year and five years.
The Northeast is feeling less of an impact of the coronavirus on operations, at least according to Vermont-based Casella Waste Systems. At least over half of Casella employees are vaccinated against COVID-19, said Vice President Joe Fusco. The company in April initiated a campaign to raise awareness internally and externally about employees receiving the vaccine and to strongly encourage, though not require, that employees take that step.
Fusco said Casella recently had a lottery in which it awarded five $1,000 prizes to winning individuals who had registered that they had been vaccinated. The company has not had any service disruptions amid the spread of the delta variant, he added, noting that Vermont has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country: Over 85% of the state’s population over the age of 18 has received at least one shot.
As to whether vaccination status may play a role in the hiring process for new employees, Fusco said the company has discussed asking that question in a job interview, and “certainly vaccinated people are attractive as job candidates.”
More cities, including Boston, San Francisco and Tucson, Arizona, are starting to require coronavirus vaccines or frequent testing for city employees. As of Sunday in the U.S., reported daily average cases had increased 64% over the prior two weeks.