Politics & Business

Rubbish piles up as Baltimore DPW faces coronavirus challenges

Trash cans and wastebasket are in an alley in Baltimore. Photo credit: Emily Sullivan / WYPR

Officials from the Baltimore City Department of Public Works told members of the city council on Tuesday that more than a third of their garbage and recycling crews were out of work in August due to the coronavirus pandemic, which left some neighborhoods weeks without pickup to spend.

"COVID hit us on all sides," said John Chalmers, head of DPW's solid waste office, in a hearing before the Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

The agency had to close plumbing yards and quarantine workers if there were outbreaks. You are dealing with a larger garbage can than usual as people spend more time in their homes. And they have tried hard to keep and attract workers.

The nature of the garbage collection – with its physical demands and exposure to the elements – requires a special type of worker that DPW cannot find during the pandemic, Chalmers said, recalling a recent hiring experience. The agency hired an employee who had started last week. He showed up on the first day, didn't show up on the second day, and worked four hours on the third day before quitting.

"The challenges of this type of work have been exacerbated by the pent-up fear and demands of working with masks," Chalmers said, particularly during the recent summer heat.

The agency addressed the downsizing by discontinuing recycling pick-up services in August and assigning all recycling crews garbage routes to make up for the growing backlog of missed routes. Matthew Garbark, DPW acting director, said the decision was made from a public health perspective.

"We wanted to prioritize garbage collections because there is a very clear public health and safety impact from garbage that is not collected," Garbark said. "But we also knew that we had to continue to value waste diversion and recycling and keep an option available."

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