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Waste collection slows as omicron affects staffing

The spread of the coronavirus variant has exacerbated staffing concerns as the industry grapples with an ongoing hiring crisis.

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January 19, 2022

The omicron variant of the coronavirus has continued to take its toll on the solid waste industry by keeping people home and causing worker shortages.

As reported by Martketplace, public works departments and private waste disposal companies across the country are short-staffed. And, in some cities, that means waste and recycling bins are sitting at the curb long after their usual pickup times.

In Tempe, Arizona, for example, the solid waste department has been short-staffed for months. According to Fox 10 Phoenix, the city cites difficulty hiring and retaining employees as major causes for the delays, but the spread of COVID-19 has been compounding the issue.

The omicron variant of the coronavirus started sending workers home, which meant some trash and recycling weren't getting picked up, Nikki Ripley, Tempe’s media relations manager, told Marketplace. Now, workers are returning from quarantine, and the city has approved a salary boost to attract new garbage truck drivers.

“It’s been an intensive, challenging time,” Ripley said.

Meanwhile, in New York City, the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) Commissioner Edward Grayson told PIX11 Morning News that sick calls fluctuated between 20 percent to 25 percent of workers the week of Jan. 3, but the department was working through it by expanding hours and canceling days off.

However, with a snow response plan in place amid frigid temperatures and preparations for icy conditions, staffing levels will be “robust” for the possible snow event, Grayson guaranteed.

Similar collection delays have been seen in Detroit, Philadelphia and throughout Texas, as well.

David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Maryland, told Marketplace he saw the situation coming.

“The combination of increased residential waste during the holidays and the omicron variant is a perfect storm for solid waste collection,” he said.

Sanitation is having a hard time hiring. Plus, there’s been a sharp increase in household trash “because people stopped going to stores and started buying everything on e-commerce.”

While people have come to expect staff shortages at retail stores and restaurants, Biderman said delayed trash collection gets our attention.

“When it’s not done properly and trash blows all over the street, it immediately affects the quality of life for people in communities,” he said.