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Omicron surge is causing worker absences, SEPTA delays, and late trash pickup across the region

“Everybody’s got it,” said one union leader. “This is twice as bad as when the delta [variant] was around.”

Health care worker, Carlos Aviles speaks during a protest rally on Thursday, January 13, 2022., at the Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pa.
Health care worker, Carlos Aviles speaks during a protest rally on Thursday, January 13, 2022., at the Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, Pa.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

More than 2,000 SEPTA bus and trolley trips were canceled due to absences just on Monday and Tuesday. A fifth of city garbage trucks were out of service one day. Some postal offices temporarily closed, and in Delaware County, a quarter of all county employees were out one day in the first week of January.

They were among thousands of workers who have been sidelined by the omicron surge as record-high COVID-19 infection numbers not only hobble hospitals and close schools across the region but also affect municipal, transit, prison, and other workplaces.

“Everybody’s got it,” said Nick Casselli, president of the American Postal Workers Union Local 89. “This is twice as bad as when the delta was around.”

Philadelphia police officers have been out, too: Omicron cases are hitting a department already at its lowest staffing levels in years. The department would not say how many officers have been out sick, though three sources in the department said absences last week were in the hundreds. Spokesperson Eric Gripp said only that staffing can be “a challenge.” The Fraternal Order of Police union declined to comment.

Gripp and a few other employers said more people were out in the first week of January than last week — a potentially promising sign as health officials hope the surge may be starting to plateau. And there has been no widespread breakdown in services in the Philadelphia region. Many employers said the absences are noticeable; others said they’ve learned to adapt during the pandemic.

But as of Friday, an average of more than 800,000 people were being newly infected per day nationwide. The omicron variant is highly transmissible and can evade vaccine protection, though unvaccinated people are much likelier to have severe cases. Any known exposure means a worker has to temporarily quarantine.

The workforce disruptions have occurred coast to coast: Baltimore cut back recycling collection; bus service was scaled back in Las Vegas; San Francisco officials asked residents to call 911 only for life-threatening emergencies. Schools from Oregon to Georgia to Delaware have struggled to stay open or gone temporarily virtual.

In Pennsylvania, nearly 30,000 new infections were reported on Wednesday alone, as were 23,000 in New Jersey. Though the Garden State saw a slight downturn last week, the two states combined were still averaging more than 55,000 new cases a day on Thursday.

» READ MORE: COVID-19 surge has overwhelmed some Pa. hospitals — and now their workers are getting sick, too

Montgomery County has shuffled workers among understaffed departments; 15% or more in Chester County have been absent during the surge. Bucks County said less than 3% of its employees have been sidelined recently, but Philadelphia has seen shortages, including in emergency services, Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said.

She didn’t quantify the problem, saying only, “We haven’t reached a crisis point.” A spokesperson confirmed the city has experienced challenges but couldn’t immediately provide the week-by-week numbers of people out across all departments.

PECO and the Philadelphia International Airport said the number of their workers out sick has increased in recent weeks but is manageable. PennDOT said a Delaware County crew was short-staffed during January’s first snowstorm, but the region’s absence rate has been fairly steady.

» READ MORE: 102 Philly schools are closed because of COVID-19. At some still open, ‘everything’s not fine’

Still, employees who aren’t sick are now asked to work more, and employers are scrambling to change shift schedules as more people call out. And in many industries, these absences are occurring on top of an existing worker shortage, causing an “unprecedented” situation, said William Brucher, a Rutgers University professor of labor studies and employment relations.

“When the pandemic started almost two years ago, I think some of these staffing shortages weren’t felt quite so acutely because more people were locked down,” he said. “Now we have a combination of things largely remaining open and the expectation for many people that they have to go to work.”

Workers ‘tired’ and anxious

The surge in positive cases and quarantines has delayed city trash collection by about a day — one day last week, 55 of about 280 garbage trucks were out of service because there weren’t enough workers to staff them, said Deputy Streets Commissioner Christopher Newman.

More than a third of collections workers have been out recently, the absentee rate hitting a pandemic high at 36%, Newman said. Before the pandemic, the outage rate averaged about 25% on a given day, and at other points during the pandemic, the rate has been as low as 30%.

Across the whole sanitation division, 160 people — 12% of its workforce — were absent one day in early January, Newman said.

It means many others are working extra hours, as hiring efforts can’t keep up with the virus, while office employees are spending the majority of their days tracing cases, tracking down anyone who worked with someone who has tested positive. The vast majority of workers catch the virus outside of work, according to contact tracing.

“They’re tired, and the morale is generally bad because of it,” Newman added, noting that the job is already physically demanding. “You hate to have people be in that situation.”

Plus, with COVID-19 testing appointments hard to find and labs inundated with samples, some employees are out even longer than usually necessary, as they search for tests and wait for results, said Omar Salaam, business agent for Local 427, which represents sanitation workers.

Along with the case spike at the Streets Department, workers in Philadelphia’s prisons, juvenile justice services center, and other offices have also been out sick in larger percentages.

And those who keep coming to work are anxious, according to Eric Hill, business agent for Local 159, which represents them.

“They’re trying their best to protect themselves and still come to work,” he said, “because they have to survive.”

Minimizing the impact

With thousands of bus and trolley runs canceled, the surge has presented the most disruption for SEPTA since those routes resumed pre-pandemic schedules, although not as severe as early 2020. An average of 600 bus and trolley operators — out of about 2,600 — missed work each day last week because of illness, said spokesperson Andrew Busch. That’s up from an average of 490 a day the previous week, he said, and 370 before the holidays.

“We’re analyzing it every day and trying to minimize the effects on people,” Busch said.

In the Postal Service region that includes most of Eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and most of Delaware, there have been upward of 100 positive cases per day during the surge, said Casselli, the workers’ union president.

Though mail delivery in Philadelphia has not been greatly affected, Casselli said, staff shortages have closed offices, including the Kensington and Paschall stations and Mayfair, Sommerton, and Oxford Circle retail locations.

A spokesperson said the USPS doesn’t comment on cases among employees.

Mail was delivered only about half the time over the last two weeks in one Wayne neighborhood, said resident Ken Mathieu, though regular service seemed to pick up toward the end of this past week. A carrier who came last week told Mathieu he was brought in from another area to help because of staffing problems.

“You try to avoid ordering anything that’s important. You can’t depend on it; you don’t know whether it’s coming,” said Mathieu, a retired teacher.

The Postal Service has hundreds of temporary workers and often shuffles workers from other stations to help cover routes, said Andy Kubat, president of the Lehigh Valley Area APWU.

“It’s definitely having an impact, but people are still coming to work and getting the job done the best we can,” he said.

Philadelphia courts have seen some challenges, too, particularly with complex trials that involve multiple parties, said Gabriel Roberts, spokesperson for the First Judicial District.

Last week, Common Pleas Court Judge Giovanni Campbell postponed a trial because of a lack of court staff, and after a prosecutor tested positive. Campbell said it seemed inevitable infections might cause future delays, too.

For many essential workers, one of the largest day-to-day impacts is the added emotional stress after 22 months of a pandemic. Morale might be low, but many are hoping stress will ease when the surge slows.

“My people are resilient,” said Salaam, the union representative for sanitation workers. “The men and women who are out there, they’re working hard.”