By Elaine S. Povich
Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, provides daily reports and analysis of state policy trends. Read more at Stateline.org.
Teryl “Ya Fav Trashman” Haigler, who spent 14 months at the height of the pandemic as a sanitation worker in Philadelphia, spent much of his tenure pointing out to the media and city officials the neighborhoods where trash was piling up on the streets.
With a website and a connection to local news outlets, Haigler shined a spotlight on the piles of trash and the plight of garbage workers. He partnered with local elected officials and assembled an army of volunteers to clean up. It also raised more than $30,000 to purchase personal protective equipment for workers.
In Philadelphia and across the country, the pandemic has exposed all the garbage disposal problems. In many places, waste went uncollected as workers fell ill or found it difficult to obtain personal protective equipment, and rubbish in residential areas was piled up by people working from home. New trucks hit supply chain snarl.
Now, local jurisdictions still face garbage problems that emerged during the pandemic and are being exacerbated by inflation and labor shortages. Cities must raise wages and add bonuses to attract and retain sanitation workers. Landfill fees have risen, and there is still a higher percentage of trash piling up in residential areas than it was before the pandemic began because more people are working from home at least part of the time.
The challenges have led to higher costs for cities and counties, and efforts to increase or reallocate budgets to cope have had mixed success.
The Memphis City Council held a meeting in July to address trash issues. Jacksonville, Fla., talked in January about returning residents for uncollected trash, though officials ultimately decided not to. Mounds of overflowing trash in New York City have hampered Mayor Eric Adams’ efforts to lure tourists back to the city. Thousands of complaints about St. Louis’ uncollected trash set city hall records.
In addition to its severe water problems, Jackson, Mississippi, nearly lost its garbage collection service in a contract dispute that was finally settled in October after the company went unpaid for six months.
“It’s clearly a problem that hasn’t abated,” said Francis Ryan, a professor of labor history at Rutgers University in New Jersey who has studied sanitation workers and garbage.
“When you walk the streets of many big cities, you have to get off the sidewalks to walk the streets because of the trash,” he said. “It’s an ongoing problem that we’re going to have to get really smart people to try to solve.”
If anything, the restrictions and societal changes of COVID-19 have illuminated how important sanitation workers are and how little they earn, said David Biederman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, a trade group.
“For a long time, solid waste has been undervalued by the public compared to schools, parks and other things that are often competitors for financial support in the budget,” he said in a telephone interview.
“The people who worked in the garbage truck didn’t get paid as much as the others. As a result of COVID, there has been a shift from government and public officials,” he said. “These workers are really essential. We need to pay them higher wages and attract new people into the industry. Things are significantly better in 2022 than they were during the peaks of the COVID pandemic in 2020 or 2021.”
“Ya Fav Trashman” Haigler gained some popularity from his online interviews and videos and got out of the trash collection business. He raised his profile so much that he became an influencer and started a non-profit organization. Now he is a community organizer, has written a children’s book about sanitation workers and is running for municipal councilor. But some of the attention he and others have paid to the trash has clearly paid off.
In Philadelphia, on-time garbage collection rates jumped from 56 percent in the first quarter of fiscal 2022 to 96 percent in the first quarter of fiscal 2023, which began in September, said Jolin Nieves Baizon, director of communications for the city comptroller’s office. , drawing the numbers from quarterly report of the city manager.
In addition, the city increased the number of budgeted personnel directly involved in garbage and collection from 960 to 1,108 employees. She could not say how many positions are currently unfilled.
Houston also experienced garbage chaos during the pandemic. The latest difficulty was the driver shortage earlier this year. The city offers $3,000 bonuses to new hires, given over time, to encourage them to stay on the job. The city also raised wages by 6 percent to a starting wage of $18.44 an hour, according to a spokesperson for the Houston Solid Waste Management Department.
Mark Wilfalk, the department’s director, said that at the end of 2021, the city’s vacancy rate for drivers and garbage workers was 16 percent and has now dropped to 14 percent. “That doesn’t sound like a lot,” he admitted, but said it was the difference from almost 60 jobs to about 45.
“We’ve had some setbacks even with recruiting efforts,” he said in a phone interview. “Sometimes people don’t work.”
Other hurdles in Houston mirrored in other cities include higher landfill fees, Wilfalk said, and delays in receiving 19 new waste collection vehicles that were ordered before he arrived in Houston in November 2021. The garbage trucks now aren’t scheduled to arrive until next August, he said. “Services are slowing down and customers are feeling it.”
In Virginia, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin vetoed a bill that would have increased annual fees for solid waste facilities such as landfills and indexed these fees to inflation, despite overwhelming political support and surprising approval from the private waste industry. The governor argued that higher fees would make it harder for companies to do business in Virginia, especially as inflation skyrocketed.
But Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell, a Democrat who sponsored the bill, said the governor’s statement represented “complete spin” — more about policy than policy. The previous Democratic administration had assembled a group of stakeholders, including waste companies, who had to pay the higher fees, he said in a telephone interview. “They came up with a fee structure that they thought was fair. Meanwhile, the election happened.”
The issue of fairness in who pays for waste management came to a head in San Diego in a November referendum that narrowly passed.
This would allow the city to begin charging homeowners for trash pickup. The City Council will determine the amount later. The city currently bears this burden through the general fund. One estimate puts it at $173 million between 2017 and 2021, according to The Voice of San Diego.
Apartment dwellers, however, pay for private garbage removal according to an ordinance from a hundred years ago. The ballot measure was thrown as a matter of fairness. The new fees won’t go into effect for some time, however, because studies must be done before the City Council can act, said Michael Zuckett of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, which supported the measure.
Zucchet said since about half of San Diego residents live in apartments or condos and half in single-family homes, it’s no surprise the vote was close.
“In the California legislature, they’re passing a number of bills related to increasing recycling services and composting services,” he said. “Any other city would just pass that on to households,” but San Diego couldn’t do that without the new measure.
Meredith Danberg-Ficarelli, a waste management expert and co-founder and CEO of WATS, a waste management software company, said the waste management infrastructure is just one of many systems in the U.S. that are broken or faltering.
“The waste infrastructure in our country is just as neglected as all our other infrastructure,” she said in an interview. The pandemic exposed those flaws, she said, and people began to focus on her. “Waste affects everything; that’s why it matters so much.”