After a summer of long delays, Philadelphia is finally getting caught up with trash and recycling collections.
“For the past week, we’ve been on or close to on schedule across the city,” said Streets Department spokesperson Crystal Jacobs.
The city has hired 153 temporary workers to assist with collections, Jacobs said. Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration announced that effort earlier in the summer, but the positions took longer to fill than anticipated.
But as collections get back on track, the volume of waste set on curbs remains about 25% larger than before the pandemic, as many residents continue to stay home. And the union that represents sanitation workers is concerned about how a potential second wave of the coronavirus could affect its members.
“I want to know, what did this city learn in these past couple months to help [stop] the spread in our department?” said Charles Carrington, president of AFSCME Local 427. “Because there was a lot of cross-contamination.”
Carrington said at least 100 sanitation workers were infected with COVID-19, and many others had to self-quarantine because they were exposed to the virus at work. He said his members now have access to personal protective equipment, which the union had pushed for at the beginning of the pandemic.
“Our COVID positive cases went down,” he said. “We’re still out there grinding, though."
Carrington said many sanitation workers were working seven days in a row this summer, often for a total of more than 35 days without a day off. The work was so exhausting that he said some employees were getting sick for reasons other than the coronavirus.
“Working seven days a week, that breaks down the human body as well,” he said. “That breaks down the immune system.”
Jacobs said the Streets Department has been able to collect all trash and recycling in just five or six workdays per week so far this month, as attendance and weather have improved, and with the addition of the temporary workers. City officials have said bringing in temporary workers for six months would cost about $2 million. That’s on top of overtime incurred by regular staffers.
City officials have acknowledged that delays could occur again.
“While on-time collections remains a top priority for the department, tonnage, attendance and severe weather may impact collections,” Jacobs said.
Communication was one struggle for the city this summer, as residents often put out their trash and recycling on schedule not realizing pickup was days behind.
To help address the problem, Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams announced a website Tuesday that will allow residents to track sanitation crews in real time. It will launch Oct. 1.
“This was very difficult for us to communicate without this tool because in certain parts of the city we may have been on time," he said. “In other parts we had delays.”
The website function, called Street Smart PHL, is the same application that lets city residents track street paving projects in real time.
Residents will be able to use the new site to track both trash and recycling trucks, Williams said.
As collections lagged this summer, recycling was often more delayed than trash collection and was sometimes combined with trash. Officials said garbage was prioritized because uncollected trash poses a greater health risk and attracts rodents. And once recycling had been left out for days or through rainstorms, officials said it could no longer be recycled.
Crews are now “gradually returning to normal collections for both trash and recycling,” Jacobs said, but mixing may still occur.
“There are times when the department may decide to collect both items together to lessen the length of time the materials sit at the curb,” she said.
Carrington, the union president, said he appreciates residents who have put out signs to support sanitation workers or taken the time to personally thank them.
“Those little gestures go a long way coming from the public,” he said.