Omicron COVID-19 wreaks havoc on US sanitation workers, delaying garbage and recycling collection

Pedestrians walk past trash bags piled up on a street in Manhattan following a slowdown in trash pickup by workers unhappy with mandatory vaccinations imposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, in New York on October 28, 2021.

The omicron variant is sickening so many sanitation workers across the United States that some cities have had to delay or suspend garbage or recycling collection, angering shocked residents that governments can’t perform this most basic function.

The slowdowns have left recycling bins full of Christmas gift boxes and wrapping paper languishing on the sidewalks of Nashville, trash bags piling up on the streets of Philadelphia and uncollected yard waste – grass clippings , leaves, branches – to block sidewalks in Atlanta.

“It’s just too bad,” said Madelyn Rubin, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where authorities have shut down recycling.

“You know they could find the money to do it if they wanted to,” she said. “If it was a company that wanted to come here, they would inject the money to make it happen.”

Cities like Atlanta, Nashville and Louisville are so understaffed that they have temporarily stopped collecting things like recyclable bottles, cans, paper and plastic, yard waste or oversized trash to focus on things coarsest and most fragrant. The delays are more than an inconvenience to residents, creating problems like clogged storm drains and blocked sidewalks.

Nashville City Councilman Freddie O’Connell was just as surprised as his constituents when he was notified before Christmas that the city was shutting down curbside recycling.

“I was just stunned that there was no alternative or backup plan,” he said. “No hotline for people with reduced mobility or without reliable access to a car” to transport their recyclables to a central drop-off site. In Nashville, understaffing has exacerbated a problem that includes a lack of working garbage trucks and a contract with a bankrupt private garbage collector.

“It looks like a failure of governance,” he added.

The garbage crisis is actually the third of the pandemic. The first happened in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 took hold in the United States. Problems arose again when the delta variant increased over the summer.

The Solid Waste Association of North America warned government officials and waste haulers in December to “plan for staffing shortages now.”

The highly contagious variant hit just when Americans were producing a lot of trash – during the Christmas holidays. Combine that with a relatively low level of vaccination among frontline sanitation workers and you have a “perfect storm for delayed collection,” the association’s executive director David Biderman said this week.

In some communities, up to a quarter of the waste collection workforce is calling in sick, Biderman said.

Garbage collection has become just another of the many basic services disrupted by omicron. In the United States, teachers, firefighters, police officers and transit workers have fallen ill in large numbers.

“We’re getting calls, emails, everything. People are understandably frustrated,” said Atlanta City Councilwoman Liliana Bakhtiari.

Atlanta officials said Monday that due to labor shortages, recycling and yard waste will be picked up “as staff permit.”

Los Angeles said delays in collecting recyclables could continue throughout the month.

In Louisville, Kentucky, sanitation workers stopped picking up yard waste in early January until further notice. Residents can drop off branches and clippings at Christmas tree collection sites.

New York City, which has the largest municipal sanitation force in the world, had about 2,000 of its 7,000 workers due to the latest wave of coronavirus, but the rest are working long hours to clear a backlog of trash. . The city has not suspended any services.

Harry Nespoli, president of the local union representing the city’s sanitation workers, said some are returning after quarantine, while others are testing positive for the virus: “Right now it’s a hinged door”.

In Philadelphia, sometimes called Filthadelphia Due to the condition of its streets, around 10-15% of the 900 people working in the sanitation sector are absent each day, causing delays in waste collection, according to Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams.

“When people are away, we can’t just hire to replace them,” he said. “We have to give them time to recover.”

To prevent garbage from piling up, some municipalities hire temporary workers or contract with private carriers. Some offer signing or retention bonuses or salary increases.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, increased starting salaries for drivers by more than 40%, from just over $31,500 to $45,000.

This allowed the city to resume recycling collection in November after halting it in July and to continue routine pickups despite the omicron push, spokeswoman Mary Beth Ikard said.