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Labor shortage slams St. Louis trash pickup and many other city departments

Labor shortage slams St. Louis trash pickup and many other city departments

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ST. LOUIS — The city is throwing out recycling with the trash in an effort to catch up on routes, a sign of broader struggles from being short hundreds of civil service employees.

“Physically, my workforce had no more to give,” Refuse Commissioner Todd Waelterman said of the cutback. “That is why this week we are mixing these two together.”

The roll carts are being recycled as usual. He said it’s the alley dumpsters, which 80% of city residents use to recycle, that are being mixed. That saves a pickup route.

“That recycling is all fluffy and light unless you load it up with a lot of beer and wine bottles,” he said.

Like in many other cities, St. Louis employers need more workers. Local officials said summer vacations, holidays, competition and fallout from COVID-19 have contributed to the shortage.

Waelterman said the Refuse Division was short on people even before the pandemic. The division has 146 full-time positions allocated; 30 are vacant, and a dozen part-time positions are open. Most of the vacancies are heavy equipment operators who drive trucks that pick up garbage. Others do bulk pickup.

In 2018, trash problems stemmed from the city’s garbage trucks breaking down. The city has since bought or leased-to-own 40 trucks and has five more ordered. Now, the city is struggling to find people to drive and load them.

Nick Dunne, spokesman for Mayor Tishaura O. Jones, said mixing recycling and trash is a temporary solution. He said the backup in services was mainly caused by recent holidays and a hiring freeze imposed last year during the pandemic that has since been lifted.

“It’s a mystery to nobody. We are experiencing a staffing shortage,” he said. “Our office is working with the Department of Personnel to get these positions filled so we can administer city services at a higher capacity. We want to fill these positions with people who love the city and want to work for the city.”

He said the challenge is bigger than refuse.

Jobs available

In all, the city needs 800 civil service workers. The vacancies make up about 15% of 5,164 positions. Openings are found on the city’s jobs website and on the wall of the Personnel Department, Room 700, in the Carnahan Courthouse across from City Hall. This week, there were 131 civil service jobs advertised, ranging from airport maintenance worker to water treatment plant operator.

Donovan Wood, 28, sat down to fill out applications by hand because he said the online application system had a “bug.” He said he didn’t mind driving in from New Haven, about an hour west of the city in Franklin County. He grew up in St. Louis and is a military veteran. He now works as a corrections officer in a state prison and as a bouncer at a bar. He said he volunteers as an EMT and would like to do “something good for the city of St. Louis” by working for the police or fire departments.

“Nothing can describe the feeling of helping somebody on the worst day of their life,” he said.

Missouri lawmakers last year passed a bill during a special legislative session repealing the residency rule for St. Louis police and firefighters until September 2023, partly in response to unfilled police officer positions. City voters in November, however, declined to lift the residency rule for all city workers.

Personnel Director Rick Frank said in a recent interview the city’s residency requirement “has been killing us.” The department hires hourly workers, called “per-performance employees,” to fill needed positions in part because they don’t need to live in the city.

“With the crime and with the cost of living in the city, rents being high, with the school system being challenging, it’s very, very difficult to get people who want to move into the city or can move into the city,” Frank said. “If we go per performance, there is no residency requirement, so that’s a big issue as well. So we can hire from Franklin County or Jefferson County or St. Louis County for these per-performance positions.”

During a June 2 hearing on the personnel department’s budget, Alderman Heather Navarro, 28th Ward, said the online application system didn’t appear to be working. She tried to apply for a city position online to test the system.

“Whatever we’re doing is just fundamentally not working,” she told department leaders. She emphasized her support for an improved website as well as job fairs.

Alderman Marlene Davis, 19th Ward, said the department “is not giving us the outcomes that we need,” and she hoped the board’s public employees committee would hold hearings to delve into the department’s operations.

Personnel Deputy Director Linda Thomas, who represented the department at the hearing, said it is probably time to look at the city’s application process. She has been working with the information technology department on a project overhauling city systems including personnel management.

“The system that they’re planning on replacing was actually, the legacy system was put in place in 1968,” Thomas said. “I helped put it into place. It worked back then. But it’s not working so good anymore.”

A personnel department spokesman said Wednesday that there has not been a struggle with the online application system because about 95% of applications are filled through the website.

‘A big deal’

Jim Sahaida, a 40-year resident of the Bevo Mill neighborhood in south St. Louis, said he has seen city resources decline as population has fallen. He lives close to Carondelet Park and said its general appearance and upkeep just isn’t as nice as it used to be. His concern extends to neighborhoods.

“When homes and surroundings are not kept up, it can be a slippery slope down, fast,” Sahaida said by text message.

Trash backed up over the July 4 holiday weekend. He didn’t like the way the overflowing dumpsters looked.

“For those who value their neighborhood and quality of life, it’s a big deal!” he wrote.

Last year’s total trash complaints marked a 10-year high in St. Louis. Through July 11 this year, complaints about overflowing dumpsters and other trash messes totaled 7,428, up from 7,350 this time last year.

Waelterman, of the Refuse Division, said the department is doing the best it can and trying to figure out better solutions.

He made a plea for applicants for refuse truck driver positions, officially known as “heavy equipment operator II” jobs. The starting pay is about $35,000 a year plus benefits. Part-time positions start at $16.21 an hour; overtime is often available.

“It’s a not a bad deal,” Waelterman said. “The cabs are air-conditioned. You actually use joysticks to throw trash into the trucks.”

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