Uncollected rubbish becomes an unexpected pandemic consequence in Florida's biggest city

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA (NYTIMES) – A man in Florida’s largest city wrote to officials that the smell and flies were getting bad, after six weeks of waiting for his yard waste to be picked up.

Other residents sent photos of overflowing bins, stacked plastic bags and littered lawns. At one point, the fed-up neighbours of Almira Street in Jacksonville threatened to rent a truck and dump their trash on the steps of City Hall.

The disruption to America’s economy created by the coronavirus pandemic has led to mass cancellations of school buses and ferries, to rental-car shortages and a bottleneck of cargo ships waiting at seaports. And, in cities such as Jacksonville, it has created a small but growing indignity: garbage left out to rot.

In the grand scheme of suffering, there are bigger problems. But it has become yet one more example of a public service that most people take for granted but is no longer working right.

“What good” are public servants, one frustrated man emailed the city, “if they can’t even maintain basic services??”

The pandemic delays have not been limited to Florida. Dozens of communities have experienced similar trouble. Atlanta began offering US$500 (S$674) signing bonuses to trash haulers, and garbage pickups were delayed in Denver. In Collingswood, New Jersey, just outside Philadelphia, municipal workers had to pick up the trash themselves earlier this summer after the borough’s waste hauler announced that it had no drivers: “We’re just not coming in”, the mayor said he was told.

In Jacksonville, the delays in waste hauling became so bad in late summer and early fall that piles could be seen all over town. The city prioritised trash when it could, but yard debris was left to linger.

On a recent afternoon, mounds of tree branches, palm fronds and grass cuttings spilled onto the road in several residential neighbourhoods. Some heaps were as tall as small children. The waste was browning and settled into deep grooves in the ground. It was easy to see why people worried that the lingering waste might attract mosquitoes or vermin.

Mayor Lenny Curry announced a temporary suspension of curbside recycling this month so that city sanitation crews and private contractors would have more time to clear the backlog of trash and yard waste. That was after the city had tried to pick up the slack by paying employees from the parks, public works and fire departments nearly US$100,000 in overtime to take extra shifts driving garbage trucks.

Mr Curry, a Republican, said in a recent interview in his minimalist office in downtown Jacksonville that he did not come to the decision lightly and agreed to the suspension only once the city found collection sites for residents to drop off their recyclables.

“This is the only solution to get this moving again,” said Mr Curry, whose administration saw a drop in complaints after recycling was suspended. “If your garbage isn’t picked up, you’re not happy.”

By the end of August, the city had withheld nearly US$1 million in payments to its three private waste-hauling contractors for failing to complete their routes and hired a new contractor to replace one of the companies.

But that had proved insufficient, especially when it came to yard waste. The landscape in Florida is lush, subdivisions take pride in their landscaping and palm trees are forever shedding large, thorny fronds that can turn into projectiles during storms.

The angry complaints from residents kept pouring in. Some demanded a refund of their solid waste fees.

“It would be nice to know what day they will pick up in my neighbourhood, which is really beginning to look like CRAP,” Mr Dennis Connors wrote on Sept 2, noting that his yard waste had been uncollected for nine weeks, and his recycling for four.

The blame for the trash problems around the country lies with a labour shortage that predates the pandemic but has been exacerbated by it, said Mr David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

“Recruiting and retaining workers is perhaps the biggest challenge that solid waste companies and local governments have with sanitation,” he said. “Covid was the perfect storm.”

Overflowing trash cans in Jacksonville on Oct 9, 2021. PHOTO: NYTNS

Picking up garbage has never been glamorous: Workers start early and spend many hours in the heat, rain and cold. Average wages across the United States are just US$40,000 a year. And what they do literally stinks.

The commercial driver’s license required for a driver’s job can just as easily be used to drive a truck for furniture deliveries or large retailers.

“Why would you go to work for the city of Jacksonville for US$40,000 a year as a CDL driver when you can go out and make US$80,000 and work for FedEx?” said Mr Ronnie Burris, business manager for the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 630, which represents sanitation workers.

Last year, officials in Dallas tried to prepare for possible delays if workers contracted the coronavirus. Instead, delays peaked in June of this year.

Dallas, which uses temporary labourers in the back of garbage trucks, saw its worker pool decline by about 30 per cent, said Mr Cliff Gillespie, the city’s interim assistant director. Then, the city started losing truck drivers and found itself with 20 per cent vacancy.

The city did what economists say is the only way to head off the shortages: It raised workers’ pay.

Contractors were bumped to US$13.20 an hour from US$12.28 an hour. Truck drivers employed by the city went to a base pay rate of US$20 or US$20.50 an hour from US$12.28 an hour, depending on their license.

“So far, that has been the magic ticket,” Mr Gillespie said.

Jacksonville, which has a US$1.7 billion operating budget, raised hourly wages in August to US$16.50 from US$11.41 for most solid waste workers and to US$19 from US$15 for most drivers.

Mr Keith Banasiak, chief operations officer and senior vice president of Waste Pro, one of the city’s private haulers, said it had raised wages in Jacksonville more than 20 per cent from last year and offered bonuses ranging from US$2,500 to US$5,000.

He blamed federal unemployment insurance and the child tax credit for distorting the labour market.

“They found themselves able to stay home and make equal to or in some cases greater than what they were making every day,” Mr Banasiak said.

Several recent studies have debunked the notion that unemployment payments were causing labour shortages, concluding that the extra payments played only a small role in this year’s worker shortfalls.

Mr Biderman said he had seen little improvement since federal unemployment benefits ended.

Dr Eliza Forsythe, a labour economist at the University of Illinois, said employers in a tight market needed to offer better wages and job quality, even if that meant that their services would grow more expensive.

“If you would like to have your garbage picked up, you’re going to have to pay the cost to get workers to do it,” she said.

That would be fine with Mr Connors. In 38 years of living in Jacksonville’s Westside, Mr Connors said he never had to worry much about the garbage, until now.

He has stopped putting out his bagged yard waste because, after a few days, it kills the grass. He keeps 25 to 30 bags packed into a dog pen in his backyard, waiting until he feels confident that crews will follow a reliable schedule again.

“Raise my taxes 0.05 per cent or something,” he said. “But provide the service.”

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