Longtime Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley recalled an email the borough received in early June from its waste hauler that basically said: “We’re just not coming in. We don’t have anyone to drive.”

Already facing pickup delays, the borough scrambled to amass its own municipal workers to pick up trash, recycling, and yard waste. The company, Seaside Waste Services, even lent the borough a truck.

It was the first time Collingswood, a borough of almost 14,000, collected its own trash since the 1970s.

“There wasn’t a lot of time for emotion,” Maley said. “We said we have to get this fixed.”

Communities across the Philadelphia region are experiencing widespread trash pickup delays, often lasting days and sometimes a week or more, as a result of a labor shortage among waste haulers.

Philadelphia has had problems since the beginning of the pandemic. Streets Department Commissioner Carlton Williams apologized Sunday in a notice on the department’s website for the delays, which he said were caused by staff shortages and the increased tonnage from people remaining home due to the pandemic.

“The office has been inundated with calls related to trash and recycling collections,” the notice said, instructing residents to set out their waste on their regular collection days but to expect delays. It asked residents not to call or make a 311 request until 48 hours after a collection was due.

Driver shortage

Though not all suburban towns are affected, many are, including Cherry Hill, with a population of more than 71,000. The township has experienced backups for weeks, leaving puzzled residents to take to social media to ask what’s going on.

Michelle Caffrey, a spokesperson for Cherry Hill, said the township has let its contractor, Republic Services, “know that these delays are unacceptable and must be remedied immediately.”

Caffrey said Republic added trucks Saturday and Sunday “for a weekend push to deal with the outstanding collection issues, which they hope to have remedied by early this week.”

Republic Services and Waste Management, two of the top haulers in the nation, have faced worker shortages as part of the economic reshuffling created by the pandemic. The need is especially acute for workers with commercial driver licenses, or CDLs, which are needed to operate the trucks.

“Many industries are facing staffing challenges at this time, and the recycling and waste disposal industry is no different,” Republic Services of Philadelphia said in an email.

The company added that it “is carefully monitoring the needs of our customers and communities with the supply and availability of our talent and adjusting our efforts to attract, engage and retain talent accordingly.”

Waste Management spokesperson Adrienne Fors said in an email that “the waste industry as a whole often struggles to hire full-time CDL Drivers and Technicians/Mechanics. Nationally, we compete in a labor market that has a shortage of CDL drivers.”

Norristown in Montgomery County has notified residents that its contractor, J.P. Mascaro & Sons, has issued a “contingency pickup plan” to get around the “severe labor shortage that is disrupting our collection schedule.” The plan prioritizes household trash pickup, followed by recycling and yard waste.

Burlington County officials notified residents last week that the national driver shortage is affecting its recycling contractor, the Occupational Training Center (OTC).

“The OTC is working aggressively to solve this problem, but recycling pickup will be delayed for the next several weeks,” officials said in an alert to residents, and also gave a new makeup schedule to communities that are seeing delays.

‘Kicked into overdrive’

Collingswood had experienced trash collection backups during much of the pandemic, but town officials were understanding. However, problems seemed to worsen in recent months. Then the borough received an email June 3 from Seaside Waste Services saying it could no longer keep up with collections. So the town took action.

“We kicked into overdrive,” Maley said. “We said this can’t be. This is an important public health function.”

Lisa Picciotti, a representative for Seaside, acknowledged in an email that the company has experienced shortages of CDL drivers as well as helpers who load the trucks.

To make its own pickups, Collingswood also borrowed a truck from neighboring Oaklyn and rented trucks, using its own municipal workers to drive and collect.

“But that wasn’t sustainable,” Maley said. “When we were using our own guys, they were working seven days a week, 12-hour shifts. God bless them all for doing this. But you worry they are going to get hurt lifting something or turning the wrong way.”

The borough put out notices that it was hiring five more workers for $18 an hour. Within a week, new workers were on the road. Maley said it’s not yet clear how the borough will continue its own collections in the future, after its contract with Seaside expires at the end of June.

On Tuesday, borough employee Jeff Whitman was driving a rented truck from Big Truck Rental as two workers collected recycling. Whitman said Seaside was back collecting trash after the company agreed to extend its contract with the borough month-to-month if needed.

“But for two weeks, we had to do everything,” Whitman said before driving away to the next home for pickup.