Trash pickup delay frustrates Jacksonville and other cities

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Trash pickup delay frustrates Jacksonville and other cities

Jacksonville, Fla. — A man in Florida’s largest city wrote to officials that the smell and flies were getting worse after six weeks of waiting for his yard waste to be picked up. Other residents sent photos of overflowing bins, piled plastic bags and littered lawns. At one point, fed up neighbors of Almira Street in Jacksonville threatened to rent a truck and dump their garbage on the stairs of City Hall.

The disruption to America’s economy created by the coronavirus pandemic has led to mass cancellations of school buses and ferries, rental car shortages and a glut of cargo ships waiting at ports. And, in cities like Jacksonville, it has sparked a small but growing outcry: Trash left to rot.

In the grand scheme of misery, there are bigger problems. But it has become another example of a public service that most people take for granted but are no longer doing the right thing.

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

The delay of the pandemic is not limited to Florida. Dozens of communities have experienced similar troubles. Atlanta began offering garbage collectors a $500 signing bonus, and Denver had delayed garbage collections. In Collingswood, NJ, just outside of Philadelphia, municipal workers had to pick up trash themselves earlier this summer, when the borough’s garbage collector announced it had no drivers: “We’re not coming in right now. are,” the mayor said he was told.

In Jacksonville, in the late summer and early fall, the delay in dumping became so bad that piles could be seen all over the city. The city prioritized waste when it could, but yard debris was discarded.

On a recent afternoon, mounds of tree branches, palm leaves and grass fell on the road in several residential areas. Some heaps were as tall as small children. The garbage was turning brown and had settled in deep grooves in the ground. It was easy to see why people were concerned that the garbage might attract mosquitoes or insects.

Mayor Lenny Curry this month announced a temporary suspension of curbside recycling so the city’s sanitation workers and private contractors have more time to clean up backlogs of trash and yard waste. The city then tried to pick up the slack by paying employees at parks, public works and fire departments nearly $100,000 in overtime to take extra shifts to drive garbage trucks.

Mr. Curry, a Republican, said in a recent interview at his minimum office in the city of Jacksonville that he did not take the decision lightly and agreed to the suspension only if residents in the city were asked to leave their recyclables. Found collection sites.

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“It is the only solution to move forward again,” said Mr Curry, whose administration saw a decline in complaints after suspending recycling. “If your trash isn’t picked up, you’re not happy.”

By the end of August, the city had halted payments of nearly $1 million to three of its private garbage-carrying contractors for failing to complete their routes and hired a new contractor to replace the company. But this had proved to be insufficient, especially when it came to yard waste. The landscape in Florida is lush, subdivisions take pride in their landscaping and palm trees are always shedding large, thorny fronts that can turn into projectiles during hurricanes.

Complaints of resentment from residents kept pouring in. Some demanded a refund of their solid waste charges.

“It would be nice to know what day they pick up in my neighborhood, which is really starting to look like crap,” Dennis Connors wrote on September 2, noting that his yard waste had not been collected for nine weeks. , and their recycling for four.

David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, said the blame for garbage problems across the country is a labor shortage that predates the pandemic, but has been exacerbated by it.

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

Picking up garbage has never been glamorous: workers start early and spend many hours in the heat, rain and cold. The median wage across the United States is only $40,000 per year. And what they do really stinks.

The commercial driver’s license required for a driver’s job can easily be used for furniture delivery or driving a truck to large retailers.

“Why would you go to work as a CDL driver for the city of Jacksonville for $40,000 a year when you can go out and make $80,000 and work for FedEx?” Ronnie M. Burris, business manager for 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, the delay peaked in June this year.

Cliff Gillespie, the city’s interim assistant director, said Dallas, which uses temporary laborers behind garbage trucks, saw its worker pool drop by about 30 percent. Then, the city started losing truckers and found itself with 20 percent vacancies.

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The city did what economists say is the only way to address the shortfall: it raised workers’ wages.

Contractors were increased from $12.28 an hour to $13.20 an hour. Truck drivers operating in the city received a base pay rate of $20, or $20.50 per hour, from $12.28 per hour, depending on their license.

“So far, it’s been the magic ticket,” said Mr. Gillespie.

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

Keith Banasik, chief operating officer and senior vice president of West Pro, one of the city’s private operators, said it has raised wages in Jacksonville by more than 20 percent from last year and offered bonuses ranging from $2,500 to $5,000.

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

“They found themselves able to stay at home and in some cases make more or less than what they were making every day,” Mr Banasik said.

Several recent studies have debunked the notion that unemployment payments were causing labor shortages, concluding that additional payments played only a small role in this year’s labor shortage.

And Mr. Biederman said he has seen little improvement since federal unemployment benefits ended. In a tight market, employers need to offer better wages and job quality, even if it means their services will become more expensive, said Eliza Forsythe, a labor economist at the University of Illinois.

“If you want to pick up your trash, you have to pay the cost for the workers to do it,” she said.

It will be fine with Mr. Connors. In 38 years of living in Jacksonville’s Westside, Mr Connors said he didn’t have to worry too much about garbage anymore.

He has stopped putting out his sack yard waste because, after a few days, it kills the grass. He packs 25 to 30 bags into dog pens in his backyard, then waits until he is confident that the crew will again follow a reliable schedule.

“Raise my taxes to .05 percent or something,” he said. “But provide service.”

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