JACKSONVILLE, Fla .– A man in Florida’s largest city wrote to authorities the smell and flies were getting nasty after six weeks of waiting for his yard waste to be picked up. Other residents sent in photos of overflowing trash cans, stacked plastic bags and littered lawns. At one point, tired neighbors on Almira Street in Jacksonville threatened to hire a truck and dump their trash on the steps of Town Hall.
The disruption to the US economy created by the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in massive cancellations of school bus and ferries, rental car shortages and a bottleneck of cargo ships waiting in seaports. And, in cities like Jacksonville, it’s created a small but growing indignity: garbage left to rot.
In the grand scheme of suffering there are bigger problems. But it has become one more example of a public service that most people take for granted but no longer functions well.
“What good is it” officials, a frustrated man emailed the city, “if they can’t even maintain basic services ??
The pandemic delays were not limited to Florida. Dozens of communities have experienced similar problems. Atlanta started offering $ 500 signing bonuses to garbage haulers, and garbage pickup was delayed in Denver. In Collingswood, NJ, just outside of Philadelphia, city workers had to pick up trash on their own earlier this summer after the borough trash hauler announced that there were no pilots: “We are just not going in,” said the mayor.
In Jacksonville, delays in transporting trash became so severe in late summer and early fall that piles could be seen all over the city. The city prioritized trash when it could, but yard debris was left lying idle.
On a recent afternoon, mounds of tree branches, palm fronds and cut grass spread across the road in several residential areas. Some piles were as big as little children. The rubbish turned brown and settled in deep grooves in the ground. It was easy to see why people feared that the persistent litter would attract mosquitoes or vermin.
Mayor Lenny Curry announced a temporary curbside recycling suspension this month so city sanitation crews and private contractors have more time to clear the backlog of trash and yard waste. This was after the city tried to fill the void by paying nearly $ 100,000 of overtime to parks, public works and firefighters to take extra shifts to drive trucks at garbage.
Mr Curry, a Republican, said in a recent interview in his minimalist office in downtown Jacksonville that he did not make the decision lightly and only agreed to the suspension after the city had found collection sites for residents to drop off their recyclable materials.
“This is the only way to get things going,” said Curry, whose administration has seen a drop in complaints after recycling was suspended. “If your garbage is not picked up, you are not happy.”
By the end of August, the city had withheld nearly $ 1 million in payments to its three private waste haulage contractors for not completing their routes and had hired a new contractor to replace one of the companies. But that turned out to be insufficient, especially when it came to garden waste. The Florida landscape is lush, the subdivisions take pride in their landscaping, and the palm trees always shed large thorny fronds that can turn into projectiles during storms.
The residents’ complaints of anger kept pouring in. Some have requested reimbursement of their solid waste costs.
“It would be nice to know what day they’re going to be picking 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 its recycling for four.
Responsibility for the waste problems in the country is due to a labor shortage that predated the pandemic, but was exacerbated by it, said David Biderman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America. .
âRecruiting and retaining workers is perhaps the biggest sanitation challenge that solid waste management companies and local governments face,â he said. “Covid was the perfect storm.”
Collecting garbage has never been glamorous: workers start early and spend many hours in the heat, rain and cold. Average salaries in the United States are only $ 40,000 per year. And what they do literally stinks.
The commercial driver’s license required for the employment of a driver can just as easily be used to drive a furniture delivery truck or large retailers.
“Why would you go and work for the city of Jacksonville for $ 40,000 a year as a CDL driver when you can go out and earn $ 80,000 and work for FedEx?” Said Ronnie M. Burris, business manager of Local 630 of the International Union of North American Workers, which represents sanitation workers.
Last year, Dallas officials tried to prepare for possible delays if workers contracted the coronavirus. Instead, delays peaked in June of this year.
Dallas, which uses temporary workers in the backs of garbage trucks, has seen its pool of workers shrink by about 30 percent, said Cliff Gillespie, the city’s acting deputy manager. Then the city began to lose truck drivers and ended up with 20 percent vacancy.
The city did what economists say was the only way to avoid shortages: It raised the wages of workers.
Contractors went from $ 12.28 to $ 13.20 an hour. City-employed truck drivers have moved to a base rate of pay of $ 20 or $ 20.50 per hour from $ 12.28 per hour, depending on their license.
âSo far this has been the magic ticket,â Gillespie said.
Jacksonville, which has an operating budget of $ 1.7 billion, increased hourly wages in August to $ 16.50 from $ 11.41 for most solid waste workers and to $ 19 from $ 15 for most drivers.
Keith Banasiak, chief operating officer and senior vice president of Waste Pro, one of the city’s private carriers, said he had increased wages in Jacksonville by more than 20% from last year and offered bonuses ranging from $ 2,500 to $ 5,000.
He criticized federal unemployment insurance and the child tax credit for distorting the labor market.
“They found themselves able to stay home and earn as much or in some cases more than what they earned each day,” Banasiak said.
Several recent studies have debunked the idea that unemployment benefits caused labor shortages, concluding that additional payments played only a small role in this year’s labor shortages.
And Mr Biderman said he had seen little improvement since the end of federal unemployment benefits. Eliza Forsythe, a labor economist at the University of Illinois, said employers in a tight market need to offer better wages and better quality jobs, even if that means their services will become more expensive.
âIf you want your garbage to be picked up, you will have to pay the cost for the workers to do it,â she said.
It would be nice with Mr. Connors. In 38 years of living in the Westside of Jacksonville, Mr Connors said he never had to worry much about garbage, until now.
He has stopped taking out his garden waste in a bag because, after a few days, it kills the grass. He keeps 25 to 30 wrapped bags in a dog pen in his backyard, waiting to be sure the teams will follow a reliable schedule again.
âRaise my taxes by 0.05% or something,â he said. “But provide the service.”