Trash cans and recycling bins sit in an alleyway in Baltimore. Photo credit: Emily Sullivan/WYPR

Baltimore City Department of Public Works officials told city council members Tuesday that more than a third of their trash and recycling crews didn’t work in August because of the coronavirus pandemic, allowing some neighborhoods to go weeks without pick-ups.

“We have been hit on all sides by COVID,” John Chalmers, Head of DPW’s Bureau of Solid Waste, said in a hearing before the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

The agency has had to close sanitation yards and quarantine workers as outbreaks occur. They’ve dealt with larger than usual trash tonnage as people spend more time in their homes. And they’ve struggled to both retain and attract workers.

The nature of trash pickup work – with its physical demands and exposure to the elements – requires a special kind of worker that DPW can’t find during the pandemic, Chalmers said, recalling a recent hiring experience. The agency hired an employee who started last week. He showed up for the first day, failed to show up for the second and worked four hours on the third day, before quitting.

“The challenges of this type of work have been exacerbated under the pent-up anxiety and the demands of working with masks on,” Chalmers said, especially during the recent summer heat.

The agency dealt with its reduced workforce by suspending recycling pickup services in August and assigning all recycling crews to trash routes in an attempt to catch up with a growing backlog of missed routes. Matthew Garbark, acting DPW director, said that decision was made from a public health standpoint.

“We wanted to prioritize trash collections because there is a very clear public health and safety ramification from trash that is uncollected,” Garbark said. “But we also knew that we need to continue to emphasize waste diversion and recycling and keep an option available.”

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