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Atlanta’s trash collection service bowing under short staffs, heavy workloads

By David Pendered

Atlanta’s problems collecting yard waste has uncovered a host of woes in the entire system of collecting waste, just as ratepayers have received their annual solid waste bills.

Solid waste that’s left on the curb, and not picked up in a timely fashion, tends to get picked over and scattered through a neighborhood. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Similar woes were recounted at this time last summer. In 2020, Covid-19 was blamed for staffing shortages on garbage trucks, and sluggish pickup in neighborhoods was generally accepted.

This month, members of the Atlanta City Council’s Utilities Committee were less receptive to the plea of short staff.

The concerns arose during Public Works Commissioner Al Wiggins’ presentation of the plan by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ administration. To offset the staffing shortage, the scheduled collection of yard waste will be reduced from once a week to twice a month. Committee members used the moment, at the July 13 meeting, to air a host of other waste-collection concerns less than five months before all city posts are up for election.

For starters, neighborhood volunteers were left to pick up furniture and other household debris that was dumped on a neighborhood’s street.

“I’m talking about a location in Oakland City, where someone dumped two blocks of debris over the weekend,” Atlanta City Councilmember Cleta Winslow said. “People are dirtying our city with trash. Until we start prosecuting these people and putting them in front of a judge and fining their behind, well, we’re just going to have to fine them and put them in jail. I’m sorry. I’m done. But I’m upset.”

Boone, corridor clean-up

Atlanta City Councilmember Andrea Boone (bottom right) coordinated a group of about 120 volunteers in September 2020 to pick up trash along Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The city’s understaffed sanitation department was unable to pick up street debris during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, and the situation is somewhat unchanged. Photo provided by Andrea Boone

Entire streets have been skipped by trash trucks, and a truck that finally did arrive picked up the bin of only the household that called for service.

“I’m receiving reports that only that one can, that made it through the reporting system, gets picked up and the other cans on the street are left behind,” committee Chairperson Natalyn Archibong said.

Folks who apply for a job on a trash truck – which once was a coveted position because of a steady paycheck and benefits – have to wait 10 days or more to be hired.

“They have people who want to be hired, and need to be hired immediately because we are in a crisis,” said Councilmember Andrea Boone.

Ratepayers have not been notified of how they will be compensated for paying a for a service they’re not going to receive for the foreseeable future – weekly collection of yard waste.

“What do we do about services constituents paid for, and is there any recompense for them?” asked Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit. “I just paid my bill, $400 and some dollars. Is that bill for every-week service? I would like to hear from the Law Department about how we handle this.”

Atlanta City Attorney Nina Hickson said the situation is being evaluated. Once the administration reaches a decision, that information will be provided to the council.

Finally, in a comment that actually started the conversation, Wiggins mentioned the challenges facing the sanitation workers who are collecting waste.

Atlanta trash cans, edit

Some Atlanta trash collectors are working seven-day weeks to help keep up with the demand for collections, the public works commissioner said. Photo illustration: Kelly Jordan

“Injuries are on the rise. Snake bites. Due to fatigue from the work hours,” Wiggins said.

Wiggins has been in the job since March 1. Wiggins replaced James Jackson, who now directs the public works department in Topeka, Ks.

Wiggins said the staffing problems have resisted attempted solutions that have included a hiring blitz and calls to staffing agencies.

Those efforts have fallen short, in part because applicants who expressed interest failed to appear for an interview, and staffing agencies can’t provide the worker’s compensation as required by the city. Creative solutions include folks working outside their normal tasks, Wiggins said.

“We’ve used office staff to drive trucks, do field inspections, to fill roles that are not part of their normal job description,” Wiggins said.

David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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1 Comment

  1. how much are my property taxes again? July 30, 2021 10:01 am

    Talking w/a friend in Grand Park, she indicated her sanitation guys take the yard debris along with the garbage in the same truck; she asked one of the workers and he responded that’s what they’ve been told to do.
    Friend in Poncey Highland doesn’t see yard debris pick up for months at a time, a well-noted problem for way longer than “covid”
    I put out yard debris from a park, put in my 311 request for a special pick-up, received a form-letter reply in well under 24hrs as to why my pile couldn’t be picked up. So how do they not have enough guys to run enough trucks, but they have enough employees to hot-foot it out to examine trash piles as soon as a request is posted to inform a resident they’re not getting their trimmings picked up?

    Meanwhile, commercial properties by code required to maintain dumpsters out of their own pocket also are soaked hundreds of dollars by a Solid Waste bill that only covers street sweeping once (oh, you say twice?) a year.

    And don’t get anyone started on the THREE YEAR BACKLOG to have hazardous street trees removed. Someone’s gonna die because of that, no I’m not being flippant (much). There’s a beast of a widow-maker on my block that will absolutely crush one house and substantially smash two others if it gets hit from the wrong side by a severe storm. You can knock off the dead bark and stand in the cavity.

    Or the collapsed storm water collection basin that i’ve given up on after five+ years… Or a stolen One Way sign that has never been replaced despite two-three tickets in 311 stating it’s been completed… or subsiding streets… or broken water lines leaking for years thru the pavement (although the moss is pretty and the robins appreciate a drink in a drought)

    Why do we need more people in the city limit when the city is demonstrably incapable of taking care of the folks already here-?

    Maybe instead of paying fat salaries to the Office of Movies and Films they increase the pay of vital civil servants, the City should hire and pay to retain folks who actually keep the wheels from falling off. [And STOP giving tax breaks to developers]Report


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