Philadelphia’s struggle to keep up with trash and recycling collection amid the coronavirus pandemic has led to a different problem: keeping up with street repairs.

The Streets Department has reassigned about half of its highway crew members to assist with trash and recycling collection, spokesperson Keisha McCarty-Skelton said. Temporarily reassigning as many as 49 of the 90 highway workers to sanitation crews at a given time has created a backlog in street repair work.

“The capabilities of [the highway unit] have been cut back,” McCarty-Skelton said.

Crews are continuing to repair potholes, McCarty-Skelton said, but larger repairs such as cave-ins and ditches left by construction are being delayed.

The city remains behind schedule with trash and recycling pickup. The Streets Department announced Tuesday that trash pickup is only one day behind schedule this week but that recycling pickup remains significantly delayed.

And the delays are likely to continue as the city struggles to hire temporary workers to supplement sanitation crews. City officials announced in late July that they would hire 120 temporary workers from the existing list of civil service laborer applicants — a process that was expected to take four weeks.

But that timeline is no longer realistic, McCarty-Skelton said Tuesday. “Many of the candidates ... are no longer available to work or have not shown up to report for work,” she said.

Bags of garbage sit along the street before being picked up in Philadelphia's Ogontz section.
TIM TAI / AP
Bags of garbage sit along the street before being picked up in Philadelphia's Ogontz section.

The Streets Department has recently had an average of 160 sanitation workers report to work every day, Mayor Jim Kenney said during a news conference Tuesday.

“As soon as we’re consistently toward 200 or over, we will catch up,” Kenney said. “And people can help us by being a little bit neater about putting out the trash, and listening to the days when we say to put it out and not putting recyclables in containers that will melt in wet weather, which we have a lot of in August.”

The city may now hire as many as 150 temporary workers, and the Streets Department estimates that hiring those workers for six months will cost about $2 million.

One Center City resident complained on Twitter last week of sinkholes on the 2200 block of Naudain Street, and said Streets Department employees could give “no ETA” for repair because the highway crews were assisting with trash.

McCarty-Skelton said highway crews have started shifting back to their regular duties.

Philadelphia is not the only city that has fallen behind on trash pickup due to staffing shortages and increased volume of household waste during the pandemic. A large number of workers calling out sick remains an issue, Philadelphia officials said, as does a 25% increase in trash volume. Recent storms have also slowed collections.

The city will continue seeking temporary workers until all its sanitation crews are full, McCarty-Skelton said. And the highway crew can expect to continue spending at least some time helping with trash and recycling pickup.

“To continue supporting sanitation collections and stay on course with street repairs some highway crews will be alternating their work between collections and their highway duties until ... temporary employees being hired are in place,” McCarty-Skelton said.