Thomas Strickland, recycling coordinator for the city's solid waste division, says that regular waste collection occurs on Thursday for people living near Southwest 13th Street residents. Due to delays, trash cans were seen lining the streets of nearby neighborhoods on Friday. (Anna Guber/WUFT News)

Pandemic-related worker shortages are delaying waste collection in Gainesville

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Trash collection around Gainesville may experience delays through January and potentially through February.

In a Facebook announcement, the city cited pandemic-related workforce shortages as the cause of these delays. The city is working closely with Green For Life Environmental (GFL), Gainesville’s contracted waste collection company to minimize delays, according to Thomas Strickland, Gainesville’s recycling coordinator for the solid waste division. 

General manager Kevin Smith said the waste collection company is following COVID-19 protocols provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If workers feel sick, they are asked to stay home, evaluate their symptoms and get tested. Any workers who test positive must observe the five-day quarantine period.

“The greatest thing about GFL is that we can pull [workers] from our other districts to get the assistance that will help us through these challenges,” Smith said. 

Patrick Irby, the manager of Alachua County’s Office of Waste Collection and Alternatives, said that residents can expect their garbage to be picked up the morning after regularly scheduled collection. Workers have picked up over time to combat delays that have gone later into the week.  

“We’re working with [waste collection services] as best we can to fill in the routes, prioritize what waste gets collected and do our best to get through this,” he said. 

Jeffery Klugh, assistant manager of Waste Collection and Alternatives, said GFL sends the county a list of all the routes that were missed. The next morning, those routes are prioritized. 

If residential garbage has not been picked up by the day after the scheduled waste collection, residents are encouraged to call the city or county based on their area of residency to report the delay, Klugh said. 

In other cities, including Atlanta, Nashville and Louisville, service lines for collecting recyclables, yard and oversized waste have been temporarily stopped to keep up with garbage collection.

While Gainesville’s waste collection is currently operating without any interrupted service lines, Strickland said the main delays will be in yard waste and recycling collection.

That’s because yard waste and recycling pickup requires three employees– two workers and a driver, Strickland said. For garbage pickup, only one worker is needed, making those trucks easier to staff.  

Smith said extremely high demand and low supply of commercially licensed drivers has also contributed to the shortage of workers able to drive waste collection trucks. The American Trucking Association estimated a historic high shortage of almost 80,000 drivers in a 2021 report.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, many people would graduate high school and pursue vocational jobs such as those that require a commercial driver’s license. But a growing trend among young people to attain higher education alongside a retirement wave in the commercial driver market, has left a void in the industry. 

The pandemic has intensified this shortage, Smith said. Workers contract the virus and may have to stay home and care for their children.

“When these factors start to bottleneck, it negatively affects what our workers are able to do,” he said.

In Alachua County, a regular staff of 70 people drive the trucks. Gus Olmos, the director of solid waste and resource recovery, said that over the past four months, five of those positions have remained unfilled. 

“We just can’t get anybody to fill those jobs,” he said. 

Commercial drivers will often choose to work for long-haul trucking companies rather than waste collection services because the long haul truck companies offer better pay and larger bonuses, Klugh said. Some trucking companies are offering signing bonuses totaling up to $15,000.

Since 2016, GFL has increased its hourly wages and offered a $4,000 signing bonus and $1,000 payout on a quarterly basis. Residents who have their commercial driver’s license or are interested in obtaining it, Smith said, are encouraged to contact the waste management company.

The competition for commercial drivers has led one Florida city to turn to public service employees to help with waste collection. Jacksonville offered overtime to park, public works and fire department employees who were willing to take on the role of garbage truck drivers. 

Irby finds the uncertainty amid the pandemic and labor shortage troublesome.

“[It’s] no different than making sure you have clean drinking water,” he said. “Handling your garbage properly is kind of a foundation of a progressive community.”

Gainesville residents who are experiencing delays or those with questions can reach the city’s waste management company at (352) 334-2330. Missed collections can also be reported on the city’s website

Residents in the Alachua County area can contact the county’s waste collection department to report delays and ask questions at (352) 338-3233.  

Correction appended: A previous version of this story misspelled Thomas Strickland’s name. 

About Anna Guber

Anna is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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