Longtime City Councilman Brian O’Neill caused a stir Thursday when he wrote a letter urging Mayor Jim Kenney to bring in private companies to help collect trash.
Frustration had been building across Philadelphia, as some neighborhoods went several days with curbside trash untouched and rotting. The councilman, who represents the Far Northeast, said he received reports of rats, mice and bugs.
“You can’t just apologize to the public,” O’Neill said in an interview. “It’s just unfair to people, and it becomes a public health crisis if you let it escalate.”
O’Neill said his proposal is not an attempt at “union busting” or a move toward the privatization of trash collection. However, AFSCME District Council 33 Local 427, which represents city sanitation workers, isn’t going for the idea.
“There’s no way in the world we’re going to allow private trucks to come in here and do our job, especially when this whole back-up has been caused by management,” Omar Salaam, the union’s business agent, said.
All sides agree the delayed pickups are due to staffing shortages, but the cause appears to be up for debate.
Salaam said COVID-19 has hindered collection. More than 100 sanitation workers have tested positive, and a similar amount have had to take time off to quarantine, according to Local 427. A few have been infected with the virus multiple times.
A smaller group of employees had to stay home to take care of their children after schools and daycares closed, Salaam said.
He said it’s impossible for trashmen to practice social distancing when three are assigned to a truck with a cab that is 7 to 8 feet in length. Trucks are not being sanitized daily, and sanitation workers aren’t getting enough personal protective equipment, Salaam told Metro.
A city spokesman, Mike Dunn, said the Streets Department has distributed thousands of masks, gloves and other supplies since March.
“As is the case with most essential service providers, we are challenged with supply and delivery of this equipment due to high demand with other lifesaving priorities,” Dunn said in an email.
Officials say sanitation workers are also being forced to do more.
More waste is being produced because people are mostly staying away from offices and businesses, many of which use private companies for trash collection. Curbside tonnage is up 25 to 50 percent compared to last year, Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams said in a letter to council members.
In addition, workers have had to clean up after major protests, and severe storms have impacted services, Williams said.
O’Neill believes the manpower issues are related to an effort by workers to get hazard pay, typically calculated as “time-and-a-half.”
“I don’t think it’s related to coronavirus,” he said.
Rumors have proliferated for months that pickups have been delayed due to a sick-out orchestrated by disgruntled employees.
In May, Managing Director Brian Abernathy, addressing a question about bringing back every-week recycling collection, called the staffing shortage a “labor issue.”
“When we had our emergency salary provisions in the last two weeks of March, those attendance issues disappeared,” he said at the time. “Then, when that time-and-a-half was no longer offered, our attendance issues reappeared.”
Later in the same press briefing, Abernathy backtracked and said he did not know the cause of the staffing shortages.
Trashmen, along with other essential city workers, had received hazard pay in March. After it was rescinded, District Council 33 members received a 2 percent raise as part of an emergency contract extension.
Salaam recoiled at the notion that Local 427 would hold the city hostage by allowing trash to remain on the streets.
“I’m actually offended that Councilman O’Neill would make those statements, especially without having anything to back that up,” he said. “The only people that have not been coming to work are people who have had COVID issues.”
He acknowledged that union leaders have long sought hazard pay but said it hasn’t been the main priority in recent weeks.
“I don’t think that it would be in good character right now to try to leverage hazardous pay against picking up the trash,” Salaam added.
He said he’s frustrated with the blame game and city leaders pointing to trash collectors as the problem.
“Now is not the time for politics,” Salaam said. “The residents of Philadelphia need clean streets.”
A spokesperson for the Streets Department said officials are shifting additional staff to the sanitation unit and deploying more trucks to try to catch up. The department is not considering bringing back the every-other-week recycling schedule or hiring a private company “at this time.”
O’Neill said he was heartened by an NBC10 story in which a reporter said Williams would think about bringing in an outside contractor if problems persist.
“I can’t ask for any more than that in response to my letter,” he said.
Salaam said efforts to get back on track have been hampered by landfills that close early or are not open on the weekend. Almost all are owned by private waste companies.
He suggested the Kenney administration push those facilities to stay open later to allow for trashmen to work longer hours.