Many New Orleans residents have gone weeks without trash pickup since Hurricane Ida pummeled the city at the end of August, and city officials, activists, sanitation workers and even the company contracted to do the work all agree that one of the central problems is a labor shortage.
The problem continues, and bags of rotting trash are still piled up along New Orleans’ curbs, attracting animals and creating health hazards and suffocating smells in the thick Louisiana heat.
Even before Hurricane Ida, there were problems with missed trash pickups.
Metro Service Group, a contractor obligated to service more than 65,000 customers in New Orleans, faces the most trouble addressing the situation. The company blames a nationwide worker shortage during the coronavirus pandemic for the lack of sanitation workers, specifically drivers. The issue, it says, is further compounded by Hurricane Ida’s scattering New Orleans workers outside the city.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell and other leaders agree. Last week in a tweet that led with the phrase “No getting around it: The situation stinks,” she said the city faces a “capacity issue.”
“There was a limited workforce for this sector before the storm, and Ida’s impact only exacerbated the problem,” she wrote, adding that New Orleans is trying to address three to five times the workload with 25 percent of the necessary sanitation workers.
“There’s absolutely no magic wand that’s going to solve this overnight,” she said at a news conference last week. “And if there were one, I would have waved it already.”
No one from Cantrell’s administration attended a Tuesday city council meeting intended to address concerns over the trash situation in the city. The mayor's office told the council that the would be speaking with federal officials at that time and asked for the meeting to be delayed up to a week.
"There’s lots of people working in the administration and having one person here to answer question doesn’t seem that difficult," said New Orleans City Council member Joseph Giarrusso.
NBC News reached out to the mayor's office for comment regarding its absence from the meeting but did not receive a response.
Nevertheless, Cantrell has tapped Ramsey Green, the city’s infrastructure director, to move forward with Operation Mardi Gras. The idea behind the initiative, which officials announced Friday, is for the city to use the same strategies it uses after Mardi Gras parades to clean up the oozing bags of garbage that have sat outside residents’ homes for weeks.
To fuel the effort, the city is pulling workers and equipment from the Department of Public Works; the Mosquito, Termite and Rodent Board; the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans; the Regional Transit Authority; Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport; and other agencies to help pick up trash.
New Orleans has also encouraged residents to deliver their trash to a trash transfer station in the eastern part of the city.
“People are in their homes: Air conditioning works, power is there, and this is the last problem,” said Green, who has also taken to the streets to help pick up trash. “It is a bad problem. I myself was picking up dated and disgusting trash, but we’re picking it up, and we’re going to get it solved. We’re throwing every resource that we can at resolving this problem in both the immediate short term and in the long term.”
A sanitation company under fire
The main target of much of the city’s ire is Metro Service Group, which won a seven-year contract at about $10 million a year in 2017 to manage the city’s trash. Cantrell has said she’s open to rebidding the contract, but Green said finding a new contractor isn’t a fast solution and wouldn’t help resolve the crisis.
“We do not care who the contractor is — we want the trash picked up,” Green said. “Rebidding down the line? Absolutely. Absolutely we are looking at that.”
Jimmie Woods, the company’s owner, said Friday during a hearing before the New Orleans City Council that “we have made several passes through every street” and asserted that people who had missed trash pickup were those who had evacuated for a long time because of Hurricane Ida.
That caused a woman in the audience to spring up during the meeting and call Woods a liar, and his statement has received a large amount of pushback from New Orleanians who assert they have not had their trash picked up at all.
Greg Beuerman, a spokesman for Woods and Metro, said Monday he only knew the status of trash pickup as of Thursday afternoon, and he wasn’t sure whether the company’s owner had misunderstood some data, had misspoken or had different information when he spoke at the council meeting.
“What had been my understanding as of maybe Thursday afternoon was that 90 percent of the Metro service area had had a first pass,” he said Monday. “He may have known or thought he knew something different on Friday.”
There is also some confusion over what Metro is obligated to pick up, as the company’s contract is only to pick up trash from homes’ trash cans. The problem is that many cans have filled up over weeks, and the city said it would pick up trash left outside of the cans as part of Operation Mardi Gras.
A social media survey conducted by Thomas Adams, a professor at Tulane University’s New Orleans Center for the Gulf South, also appears to undermine Woods’ assertion.
The survey asked respondents to share their addresses if their garbage hasn’t been picked up. Sixty percent of the 1,300 respondents said that from Wednesday to Sunday, their trash hadn’t been picked up. Many of those still waiting for the refuse outside their doors to be removed are allegedly within Metro’s service area.
Adams said the review is limited by having been conducted on social media, but he said it appears to contradict Woods’ account.
“Based on my review of the survey results, I feel fairly confident as of at least Friday that a majority of Metro’s territory has not received a pass,” Adams said. “It matched my eye test, frankly.”
A problem of trucks and drivers?
Many New Orleanians appear to feel the same way and are calling for Metro to lose its contract. Beuerman said Metro isn't paying attention to the mayor's words about rebidding the contract because it remains focused on resolving the trash backlog.
He said the main issue, however, is that Metro doesn't have enough drivers, so typically only 18 of the company's 25 trucks are operating every day. The company also acknowledged frustration from residents who at times see the company's trucks driving past trash on the side of the road. That's because trucks are filling up quickly, Beuerman said, meaning sanitation workers have to drive to the landfill after just a few blocks.
We’re totally wiped and not getting paid enough for it.
The city and Woods have tried to hire other contractors to little avail. The city opened a bid for an emergency contract last week to help with the garbage load and got zero bids in response. When it extended the deadline, it got a single bid that would have provided 20 garbage trucks. The bidder didn’t have any drivers, however.
“We’ve reached out to several of the biggest operators in this country, and those conversations have continued, but those conversations are unhelpful as trash piles up in the street,” Green said.
Woods himself is driving one of the trucks on Sundays, and Metro has found a small subcontractor to take over one neighborhood, but it appears to remain far behind.
An employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation says problems with the company’s trucks can slow down pickup. The hydraulic lifts that are supposed to pick up the trash cans are often unable to handle the weight, the employee claimed, forcing two workers to help lift the cans.
“They’re so heavy the tipper can’t even pick them up,” the worker said, adding that some sanitation workers wear multiple masks because the smell is so putrid that it causes headaches. “We’re totally wiped and not getting paid enough for it.”
The employee also confirmed that there is so much garbage that the trucks are filled after as few as five streets, forcing them to drive 45 minutes or more to the landfill. It’s also not uncommon for the trucks to break down, which brings the entire operation to a stop.
Beuerman, the Metro spokesman, said he hadn’t heard of any mechanical issues among the trucks and couldn’t speak to their status or age. He said that the trucks are “workhorses” and that the company maintains a staff of mechanics.
“They’re literally out there seven days a week pounding the pavement, and any fleet — whether it’s a UPS fleet or a garbage fleet — has mechanical issues,” he said.
The city couldn’t confirm whether it had inspected Metro’s fleet or the age of the sanitation trucks. The current employee said the company had recently rented newer trucks. It’s unclear how the rental trucks are being staffed while other trucks in Metro’s fleet sit idle.
“We need new trucks and more of them,” the sanitation worker said. “They need them a new fleet.”
'I don't know what would make me come back'
In a hearing Friday, City Council member Giarrusso suggested that, if labor is an issue, Woods should consider paying his workers more — especially because the city has said “money was no object” in contending with the trash problem.
Woods responded that his company pays drivers $17 an hour, which is “competitive with our peers in the market.” The rate, however, appears to have done little to attract new drivers.
Woods also claimed that the company paid hoppers, the sanitation workers who jump off the trucks to pick up trash, beyond New Orleans' living wage rate of $11.19 an hour. Beuerman said it also faced a shortage of hoppers to staff the trucks.
In the summer of 2020, the hoppers who worked for Woods' company went on strike, alleging poor working conditions and low wages. The 14 men who went on strike and formed the City Waste Union ended their formal protest after having gone months without pay last fall. They said they got few concessions from the company, although they were able to obtain more protective equipment.
Beuerman said that Woods would like to pay his employees more but that there isn't enough money in the current contract.
"Jimmie likes to say — and he doesn't just say it off the cuff — he would like to be able to pay more than he does, but Metro operates under a low-bid contract, a seven-year low-bid contract," Beuerman said. "Certainly, when a company sits down to try to win a low-bid contact, they try to look in a crystal ball and anticipate expenses, annual increases in maintenance costs, annual increases in compensation, insurance, etc., but forecasting for a combination of Covid and hurricanes is a more difficult challenge."
At a city council meeting on Tuesday, Metro's attorney, Daniel Davillier, said it is difficult for Metro to adjust living costs because of the fixed contract. He said it was the contractor's position that the council's decision to increase the living wage further should bring changes.
"There has to be a rate adjustment to cover the additional labor costs," he said regarding the city's seven-year contract with Metro. "That was not factored into the bid at the outset. Or, otherwise, they shouldn't apply to this contract, because you can't add additional costs without providing some additional revenues to cover that."
The median hourly rate for such drivers was $22.66 last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is $18.80 for garbage collectors.
Adams, who conducted the trash survey and whose academic work often focuses on labor issues, said Woods would most likely have to raise his rates, especially for drivers who are required to obtain commercial driver’s licenses.
"You have to pay prevailing wage rates, and right now people with two years' experience and commercial driver's licenses are making a good deal more than that," he said. "Same goes for hoppers. All things being equal, a lot of people have other options right now. They maybe don't want to deal with sticky trash all day for that kind of pay."
Councilwoman Kristin Palmer, an attorney, said to compete with other municipalities and attract workers, the city and Metro would need to find a way to raise wages.
"I can't imagine signing a contract to have employees for seven years and no one gets any type of salary increase — it makes no sense to me," she said, calling the situation "ridiculous."
Palmer suggested that the Federal Emergency Management Agency may reimburse the city, but she appeared insistent that a key to resolving the trash issue would be to immediately and for the long-term raise wages to attract more workers, an adjustment adopted by many businesses during the pandemic.
"In order to make up the staffing, we would have to have an increased pay," Palmer said. "We could be more competitive and get more people at a higher rate of pay now because of the market situation that we are in."
Jonathan Edwards, one of the men who went on strike, said he returned to work for Metro after the protest but left a few weeks before Hurricane Ida because the situation remained untenable.
Edward said that pay was increased to the New Orleans living wage standard but that it wasn't enough to help him support his family. While drivers' wages have risen from $14.50 to $17 in recent months, hoppers are paid at the city’s living wage four days a week. Their pay exceeds $11.19 an hour only when they work a fifth or sixth day.
That isn’t a particularly attractive to an experienced sanitation worker like Edwards. He said that it’s tough to see New Orleans struggle but that he doesn't feel inclined to return under those conditions.
“I’d basically come back to the same situation," he said. "I don’t know what would make me come back to the city to work for them."