The Philadelphia Streets Department will hire 120 temporary sanitation workers to address widespread delays in trash pickups during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a plan Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration presented to City Council on Wednesday.
But the delays won’t end immediately: Hiring is expected to take about four weeks, according to a slideshow detailing the plan that Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams shared with Council members.
In the meantime, the department will “continue to use other departmental staff to assist until temporary employees are hired,” according to the slideshow, which was obtained by The Inquirer.
“The Streets Department continues to make progress with reducing trash collection delays and returning to a normal collection schedule,” Kenney spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco said in a statement.
The delays have been caused by sanitation workers calling out sick in large numbers while residential trash loads increase because more people are staying home.
The Kenney administration has come under fire for the delays, which Councilmember Brian O’Neill previously said had the potential to create a new public health crisis as the city continues to battle the coronavirus.
The plan will cost $2 million, and the city hopes to be reimbursed by the federal government from disaster funds available to state and local governments responding to the pandemic, Cofrancisco said.
The temporary employees will not be part of a union when they start, but will be eligible for membership in the sanitation workers’ union — Local 427 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ District Council 33 — if they later become full-time employees, Cofrancisco said.
The plan was received positively by Council members, who for weeks have been inundated with complaints from constituents about the delays. Some, however, questioned if it would be enough to solve the problem and expressed concerns about the lag time for hiring the temporary workers, according to one participant in the briefing.
Sanitation workers have previously reported inadequate coronavirus safety measures, including limited personal protective equipment and a lack of transparency about the virus’ spread within the workforce.
The union did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
As of Tuesday, trash collection was one day behind in some parts of the city and on schedule in others, while recycling remains a week behind, Cofrancisco said. Many residents, however, continue to report much longer delays.
“The Streets Department understands the residents’ concerns with collection delays throughout the pandemic and thank them for their understanding, cooperation and support during this unprecedented crisis,” Cofrancisco said.
More than 100 trash collectors have tested positive for the coronavirus, and hundreds more have had to stay home while quarantining after being exposed to it, Local 427 said two weeks ago. Meanwhile, the amount of residential trash has skyrocketed in Philadelphia and cities across the country.
Throughout the pandemic, Philadelphia has declined to release the number of municipal workers infected by the virus, citing employee privacy, though many other large cities publish that information. Cofrancisco, the Kenney spokesperson, said on Wednesday that the union’s estimate of the number of workers who have tested positive is “significantly inflated.”
The city is asking residents to limit their weekly garbage to the maximum allowable eight bags and four containers, and to reduce “food waste by using garbage disposals or composting programs,” according to the plan.
Many sanitation employees have been logging seven-day work weeks. Workers from other city agencies, including the fleet management, licenses and inspections, and water departments, have been tapped to assist with trash collection as well.
To cut into the backlog, the Streets Department has been prioritizing garbage pick-ups over recycling, which since April 13 has been limited to every-other-week collections. At times, garbage collectors were instructed to throw recycling loads in with regular trash. The city plans to return to a normal recycling schedule on July 29, the plan said.