As COVID-19 multiplies across our region and nation, our frontline workers continue to bear the brunt of this pandemic. Sanitation workers are no exception. It is no secret the Philadelphia Streets Department has been challenged with maintaining trash and recycling collections on a consistent schedule for several months.
Many direct and indirect factors related to the coronavirus are at play. We are experiencing workforce shortages due to injuries, COVID-19 and other illnesses, and requirements for quarantining crews exposed to COVID-19. Plus, the department is seeing large increases in trash and recycling tonnage curbside due to more waste being generated at home.
Add in personnel working overtime cleaning up after protests, and more recently, severe weather producing torrential rains and flooding. Needless to say, these factors have created the perfect storm.
Currently, our curbside tonnage data is showing trends in excess of 25%, and in some cases as much as a 50% increase each week, compared with collections over the same period one year prior. The increase in tonnage alone impacts our ability to collect trash on time with current resources.
To put this figure into perspective, a 25% increase in tonnage is equivalent to more than one full day of extra trash curbside each week. This means that a normal week of collection, which is scheduled to be collected over five days, is realistically taking us six, and sometimes seven, days to complete. Add in factors such as bad weather and/or hampered staff attendance, and five normal collection days can easily multiple into seven or eight days.
We want residents to know the Streets Department takes this issue seriously and is working to address the challenges and return to on-time collections. We have already begun to adjust our operations. This includes balancing necessary overtime with budget constraints, deploying more trucks and available staff when possible to accommodate the increased tonnage, and when necessary shifting crews from collecting one material (trash or recycling) to the other.
From a planning perspective, the strain on resources and the variations in that strain makes it nearly impossible to predict how far behind we will be each week because the increases in tonnage fluctuate weekly and vary across the city. This unpredictability, coupled with the challenge of employee attendance and additional impacts of COVID, really adds up. Working in this uncertain environment also hampers our ability to provide advance announcements of delays to residents.
We understand and share the concerns of our residents. We know the impact that delayed collection has on your daily lives. We also value our employees and realize the toll each of the factors listed above plays in their ability to complete their route on time while remaining healthy.
While we expect some adjustments over the coming weeks, the department will do our best to balance the circumstances surrounding the pandemic, including keeping our workforce healthy, preventing employee burnout, and making sure residential trash doesn’t sit on the curb for extended periods of time.
Carlton Williams is the commissioner of the Philadelphia Streets Department.