NASHVILLE, Tennessee (AP) — The omicron option has disgusted so many U.S. sanitation workers that some cities have had to delay or suspend garbage collection or recycling, angering residents shocked that governments can’t do this most basic function.
The slowdown has left trash cans full of Christmas gift boxes and wrapping paper languishing on Nashville roadsides, trash bags piled up on the streets of Philadelphia, and uncollected yard waste—grass clippings, leaves, twigs—blocking sidewalks in Atlanta.
“It’s just a shame,” said Madeleine Rubin, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where authorities have stopped recycling.
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“You know they could find the money to do it if they wanted to,” she said. “If it was a business that wanted to come here, they would have invested money to make it happen.”
Cities such as Atlanta, Nashville, and Louisville are so short of labor that they have temporarily stopped collecting items such as recyclable bottles, cans, paper and plastic, yard waste, or bulky junk to focus on the more rough and smelly things. The delays are more than an annoyance to residents, creating problems like clogged storm drains and clogged sidewalks.
Nashville City Council member Freddie O’Connell was as surprised as his constituents when he received a notice before Christmas that the city was halting waste management.
“I was just overwhelmed that there was no alternative or back-up plan,” he said. “There is no hotline for people with disabilities or who do not have reliable access to a vehicle” to take recyclables to a central collection point.
“It looks like a failure of management,” he added.
The garbage crisis is actually the third pandemic. The first occurred in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 took hold in the US. Problems arose again as the delta variant increased dramatically over the summer.
The North American Solid Waste Association warned government officials and garbage haulers in December to “plan for shortages now.”
A very contagious variant appeared just when Americans were producing a lot of garbage – during the Christmas holidays. Add to that the relatively low vaccination rates among frontline sanitation workers and you have “the perfect storm for a delayed collection,” the association’s chief executive, David Biederman, said this week.
In some communities, up to a quarter of garbage pickers get sick, Biederman said.
Garbage collection has become another of the many core services broken by omicron. Across the US, teachers, firefighters, police officers and public transport workers have fallen ill in large numbers.
“We get calls, emails, everything. People are understandably disappointed,” said Atlanta City Council member Liliana Bakhtiari.
On Monday, Atlanta officials said due to a shortage of workers, recycling and yard waste will be collected “to the best of staff’s ability.”
Los Angeles said collection delays could continue for up to a month.
In Louisville, Kentucky, sanitation workers stopped collecting yard waste in early January until further notice. Residents can leave branches and cuttings at Christmas tree collection sites.
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In New York, which boasts the largest municipal sanitation service in the world, about 2,000 of its 7,000 workers have been laid off due to the latest round of coronavirus, but the rest are working long hours to clean up the accumulated waste. The city has not suspended any services.
Harry Nespoli, president of a local union representing the city’s sanitation workers, said some are returning from quarantine while others are testing positive for the virus: “Now it’s a swing door.”
In Philadelphia, sometimes referred to as Philadelphia because of the condition of its streets, 10 to 15 percent of sanitation workers out of 900 are off duty on any given day, causing delays in garbage collection, according to streets commissioner Carlton Williams.
“When people aren’t there, we can’t just hire them to replace them,” he said. “We have to give them time to get better.”
To keep garbage from accumulating, some municipalities hire temporary workers or contract private hauliers. Some offer signup or retention bonuses or pay raises.
Chattanooga, Tennessee increased drivers’ starting wages by more than 40 percent, from just over $31,500 to $45,000.
This allowed the city to resume waste collection in November after it stopped in July and continue with regular collections despite the surge in omicrons, spokeswoman Mary Beth Icard said.