Business

Trash collection industry latest to grapple with labor shortages in wake of pandemic

There’s waiting longer for a table or dinner at a restaurant because of labor shortages. Then there’s waiting for someone to pick up a full-to-the-brim trash can sitting in 90-plus-degree summer heat.

A pre-pandemic shortage of licensed commercial drivers in the waste-management industry has grown worse. Cities and companies are also coping with a shortage of helpers: people who pick up the trash and hoist it into the truck.

When COVID-19 started spreading, people in the solid-waste industry were considered essential workers. Now, there aren’t enough of them. As in other industries, many people are likely looking for different lines of work or better pay.

“Some hauling companies and some local governments continue to see a high absentee rate among their employees,” said David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the trade group Solid Waste Association of North America.

Shortages are occurring across the country. “In some communities, up to 10% of the labor force is absent on a regular basis,” Biderman said.

In Dallas, fewer temporary sanitation workers has meant delays in pickups, particularly in recycling. The Dallas Morning News reported the city has received thousands of complaints

Denver is working to hire more sanitation workers after reducing its budget and letting vacancies go unfilled when the pandemic hit, said Nancy Kuhn, spokesman for the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.

The city provides trash and recycling collection services to 181,000 Denver households and compost collection service to subscribers. Kuhn said in an email that Denver cut back on extra trash collection, which includes large items, from every four weeks to eight weeks.

In June, the city received 1,738 calls about missed trash pickup and 760 about missed recycling pickups. Kuhn said each call is important, but added the city makes roughly 724,000 trash collections a month.

“Without a doubt, it has been a tough year, and a challenge, at times, to keep up — for example, such as last week when people are setting out greater amounts of trash after holiday get-togethers,” Kuhn said. “We’re keeping up for the most part, but hiring is a major priority.”

The solid waste industry is among those using signing bonuses as one way to lure back workers as businesses emerge from cutbacks because of the pandemic. Waste Management, the country’s largest solid-waste company, holding career days Friday in the Denver area.

Laura Chapin, who lives in a condominium complex in Lakewood, has noticed firsthand the problems waste management companies are having keeping up while shorthanded. Pickup has been inconsistent. The truck will show up for the weekly pickup in the afternoon rather than the morning.

“For the past couple of weeks they didn’t show up at all and our management company had to call them to come and pick it up,” Chapin said.

When pickup is delayed, the bins and plastic bigs sit for a while on the curb “You just leave it out. That’s the fun part,” Chapin said

The management company contracts with Waste Management Inc., the country’s largest solid waste corporation.

Chapin said she’s not surprised if there’s a shortage of workers because trash collection is physically demanding, can be risky and pays on the lower end of the scale.

In 2019, there were 35.2 on-the-job deaths per 100,000 among trash and recyclables collectors, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s higher than the work fatalities among agricultural and steel workers.

Westwind Management Group is one of the first lines of defense when things like trash collection goes awry for homeowners. The company, based in the Denver area, manages condo, high-rise and other residential properties along the Front Range and challenges with trash collection that were common before the pandemic grew as the coronavirus spread, said Christine Herron, Westwind’s chief operating officer.

Westwind deals with five or six different waste management companies.

“From our perspective, it’s just been really difficult for our homeowners and residents to feel like they’re getting the best service,” Herron said.

The problems include delayed and missed pickups. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect is a lack of notification from the trash services about delays so Westwind can inform residents, Herron said.

A recent report by SWANA suggests temporarily reducing the frequency of the collection of recyclables and yard waste to help with labor shortages and using temporary employees. Longer-term solutions include raising wages and promoting industry jobs as long-term career opportunities that can’t be outsourced.

“Collecting waste as a profession isn’t for everybody. That’s been an issue we’ve been dealing with for a while,” Biderman said.

But it’s a job with potential for growth, including moving into supervisory and management positions, Biderman added.

Waste Management is holding career days Friday at its centers in Englewood, 2400 W. Union Ave., and Commerce City, E. 96th Ave. The events are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. The company is offering hiring bonuses for drivers and a benefits package for all employees.

Waste Management is also offering to employees and their eligible dependents education and training at no cost that will help employees advance in the company.

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