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City looks to support waste collection workers amid pandemic stresses

Thursday, October 8, 2020 by Savana Dunning

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to keep many people at home more often, Austin Resource Recovery finds itself steadily losing the staff needed to manage the increased volume of household garbage.

City Council passed a resolution Oct. 1 to mitigate what Zero Waste Advisory Commission Chair Gerard Acuna called the “poaching” of ARR staff by private delivery and garbage companies. The resolution asks City Manager Spencer Cronk to explore opportunities to improve operator retention and determine the feasibility of resuming regular collection services.

Although the resolution, Item 61, was passed via the consent agenda, Council Member Alison Alter, who proposed the resolution, spoke briefly about the staffing issue before the vote to approve.

“Due to health and safety and staffing concerns over the past few months, ARR has limited or altered certain services,” Alter said. “More people are at home, families are generating more household waste than before the pandemic, and so my staff and I engaged with city staff to find a path toward the safe resumption of these services.”

ARR Director Ken Snipes brought up the issue of increased household waste during a proposed budget presentation at the July 17 Zero Waste Advisory Commission meeting. When commissioners Kaiba White and Cathy Gattuso questioned a proposal by ARR to stop fees on excess garbage, Snipes said the proposal was a part of a larger move by the city across all departments to provide relief for residents who find themselves at home more often.

“The idea was to not penalize those who were at home all of a sudden because of the virus, and one of the things we knew was that trash that would ordinarily have been part of the commercial waste stream was shifting to homes,” Snipes said. “Now we’re looking at reinstituting that, and it still has to go through Council.”

Alter said as she and her staff researched solutions for the issue, they discovered that the city was underpaying waste collection staff compared to the private sector. Acuna argued a similar point at the Zero Waste meeting, saying that the city needs to provide more employee incentives to counteract the “aggressive recruitment” of ARR drivers by private companies.

“With this pandemic, you and I aren’t going to the grocery store or the pharmacy or whatever, we’re relying on good ol’ Amazon and good ol’ UPS and good ol’ FedEx and all these delivery folks to bring us our necessities,” Acuna told the Austin Monitor. “So here, these folks are in dire need of additional drivers.”

Originally, the Fiscal Year 2021 proposed budget for ARR listed personnel expenses, including wages, overtime, insurance, taxes and other employee expenses, as $45.5 million, or about 43 percent of the total budget.

Acuna said the city needs a bigger selling point to compete with these companies, which can provide drivers with hiring bonuses and bigger paychecks. In his view, the city’s employee benefits are one of those selling points, but he said the city needs to be more innovative to keep personnel from leaving. According to the City Council resolution, 33 ARR employees resigned between January and July, which is typically how many resign over the entire year.

“You’ve got to convince the young guy who’s worried about how much money is in the bank on Friday, which is understandable, we’re all in that same boat at times,” Acuna said.

One of the innovative benefits Acuna had brainstormed with Snipes is the use of ARR-owned land plots to develop housing for employees. Acuna said the department owns several parcels of real estate, including a closing landfill that has areas not previously used for storing garbage, although the Council resolution itself does not mention any specific solutions. Acuna said he was grateful to Snipes for helping carry the resolution to Council.

“He’s faced with this challenge every single day, where you don’t know if you’re going to have enough guys to get in those trucks and get those collections done,” Acuna said. “And that’s scary.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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