Communities that had contracted with South Jersey Sanitation of Hammonton report worsening delays in waste pickup. The company, which was bought by Seaside Waste Services in January, blames a 50-percent staffing shortfall.
By Matt Skoufalos | May 25, 2021
For the past few months, residents in several communities across Camden County have reported ongoing issues with the pick-up of their garbage and recycling.
The common thread among many of them is a shared vendor: South Jersey Sanitation of Hammonton, which was sold to Seaside Waste Services (SWS) in January 2021.
Communities like Haddon Township and Haddon Heights are under multi-year deals with SWS; others, like Collingswood, will see their agreements expire this summer.
But the deterioration in delivery of services and the underlying, industry-wide problems that have SWS short-staffed don’t present any easy answers, even for towns that would prefer to shop around for an alternative.
Haddon Township Mayor Randy Teague described delays in waste removal as having worsened from “an isolated problem here or there” into more persistent issues throughout the past couple months.
The township is still under contract with SWS for at least a year more, Teague said, and every time such a deal expires, disposal costs increase. Historically, however, South Jersey Sanitation had consistently returned the lowest reasonable bid for the work involved, the mayor said.
In an attempt to defray some of those escalating costs, Haddon Township purchased a truck dedicated exclusively to brush removal, and assigned some of its public works employees to handle yard waste from March through November. That crew is helping alleviate the burden of the delays that township residents are experiencing now, but Teague said the truck “is not really capable of picking up recyclables and trash because it’s not for that.”
For now, the municipal government is keeping tabs on the situation and hoping things improve. Like many of his colleagues, Teague notes that searching for a competing vendor presents a variety of challenges, especially if the entire waste disposal industry is facing the same staffing shortfalls.
“It’s a moving target at this point,” he said. “I think we’re just all hoping that it sort of works itself out.”
The problem with Plan B
In Haddon Heights, where the garbage is supposed to be hauled away every Monday and recycling every Friday, some residents found themselves waiting until Tuesday morning for pick-up this week.
“That’s five days it’s been sitting out,” said borough mayor Zach Houck, whose own recycling wasn’t removed until this morning.
“It’s beyond frustrating for residents,” Houck said.
“Thankfully it’s not 90-degree weather today with the trash.”
Haddon Heights has outsourced its trash removal since at least the 1990s, Houck said; its current contract with South Jersey Sanitation was signed in 2019, and won’t expire until the end of 2022. Although the company has performed well for the past five years, “at this point, they’re violating the contract, so if we wanted to get out of it, we could,” he said.
However, if the borough decided to do that, “One, we’re going to pay more, and two, it doesn’t guarantee we’re going to see better service,” Houck said.
Currently, Haddon Heights pays $450,000 annually for removal of its municipal waste and recycling; the mayor believes that cost could climb by another $100,000 under another vendor.
“Where do you come up with another $100,000 in Heights?” Houck said. “It’s a huge jump for a town with a tight budget.
“The most irrational thing for us to do is to fire the company without a Plan B,” he said. “Other towns have gone out to bid; they’re all seeing that 20-to-30-percent increase in costs.”
The mayor cited the example of nearby Gloucester City, which terminated its relationship with Republic Services in June 2020 only to encounter similar issues with its replacement, Solterra Recycling Solutions, eight months later, as reported by CNB News.
“They’re all having these shortages of personnel,” Houck said.
Were Haddon Heights to consider the alternative of rebuilding its own local waste collection service from the ground up, the borough would face additional costs in establishing and staffing it.
“Smaller trucks mean you have to go dump more often, and the trucks are old and plagued with maintenance issues, which the borough hasn’t been paying for with its shared service agreement [with Audubon Public Works],” Houck said.
“And you still need the manpower to go out and pick it up,” he said.
“You’d be picking up trash and recycling every day, and you’d need two guys and a driver. That’s a lot of cost, and it’s very inefficient.”
Houck says the borough council and professionals have estimated the cost of two or three automated trash trucks and 3,000 new compatible bins at about $1.5 million, a sizable capital investment for a borough with a $9.1-million annual budget.
Trucks that rely on manual labor are cheaper, but the costs of staffing them add permanent line items in the form of salaries, benefits, and pension costs. Neither solution would be quickly realized, either.
“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Houck said; “all this stuff’s being vetted. We’re issuing fines for their failure to deliver services. At the same time, we’re also trying to work with them to help resolve the problem.”
Haddon Heights isn’t the only community to be dealing with these waste removal issues, and Houck pointed out that how each of them responds, whether collectively or individually, could have an impact on the local market for waste removal.
“There’s a lot to picking up trash and recycling, and I think there’s the opportunity for getting the right trucks, staffing it, and saving money on the management end,” he said.
“We’re not the only ones facing this,” Houck said. “I think you’re going to see a growing trend of people wanting to move back to the model of doing it themselves, which I’m sure will put the market in full swing. Hopefully, the system will reset itself a little bit.”
In the interim, however, he said the borough is “open to all options to allow them to increase their efficiency,” including changing trash days, adding multiple pick-ups, or splitting the days on which recycling and waste are collected.
“I’m going to head down to their headquarters tomorrow and find out what are the options to make it work,” Houck said. “If they’re doing nothing, that’s a huge red flag for us.”
‘We want compliance, not penalties’
Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley said that his borough’s troubles with South Jersey Sanitation precede its sale to Seaside Waste Services.
Throughout the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, “we’ve been battling with them on COVID-related issues, where they’ve had people who had to quarantine, so they’re short-staffed,” Maley said.
“Then, a couple months ago, they sell,” he continued. “Not the smoothest transition; we start having problems. The problem the last two or three weeks is, again, their lack of personnel.”
Collingswood is pursuing a stick-and-carrot approach, working to try and help the waste management company resolve its labor issues, and simultaneously fining SWS for violating the terms of its contract.
“With our contract, there’s liquidated damages and they’re being fined,” Maley said. “We pay them $45,000 a month; this last month we’re paying them $7,500.
“While we’re fining them, we’re also trying to give some help to them to figure out how they can fill these positions,” the mayor said.
To wit: Collingswood invited SWS representatives to its local job fair Monday evening, and is working with company officials to host another such opportunity at the Parkview apartment complex.
Borough public works crews are also hauling away yard waste to the municipal compost facility as a temporary stopgap, but Maley notes that’s not a permanent solution to the problem.
“We want compliance; we want them carrying out the contract,” he said. “It doesn’t do us any good to pay them no money and still have the trash not picked up.”
The mayor urged residents to continue notifying the local government in detail if their trash pickups are delayed, either through the borough government website or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re using that as our basis to fine them, and to make sure that we know so we can get [waste] picked up,” Maley said.
Pennsauken Mayor Marco DiBattista said that his public works staffers are “trying to deal with the situation as it presents itself.”
The township, which also contracts with Seaside Waste Services, has tried to resolve delays in trash and recycling pick-ups using its own public works staffers, including the department head.
“Everybody’s in a pandemic; we see the struggle as well,” DiBattista said.
“They are telling us we have a shortage. We are asking what can we do to help bridge this gap, but we just don’t have the equipment or the manpower.
“Our job is to make sure that our residents get the proper treatment, and that’s what we try to do with an outside agency,” he said.
‘We’re looking to serve the community and get it done right’
Seaside Waste Services CEO Jim Sage, said that his company has tried almost anything it can think of to resolve the staffing shortage it blames for the delays in service.
SWS purchased South Jersey Sanitation Services in January 2021, as well as Woolston Company of Bordentown, but closing those deals didn’t affect the labor issues that have presented themselves in Camden County, Sage said.
“Nobody had any problems until we hit this labor shortage in late March, early April,” he said; “nobody really cared whether the company was bought or sold.
“The shortage we’ve got is guys on the back of the truck,” Sage said. “We’re using drivers to load the back of the truck, and to drive the truck. We simply can’t get the people.”
He described the shortfall in garbage haulers as a national issue that is presenting as more severe in the Northeast. Waste technology company Enevo of Boston, Massachusetts, outlined the problem in a 2019 blog post that identified factors including an aging workforce, disdain for blue-collar jobs, lower wages, and more competitive opportunities in trucking and other logistics fields, plus shifting global economics around recycling.
Trash removal isn’t easy. Ten-hour days, six days a week, is the norm, plus overtime; but the job can net $50,000 to $75,000 a year with those overtime hours, “and we’ve got nobody to fill the positions,” Sage said.
Seaside Waste has a staff of 94 employees, but it’s short on trash throwers by about half, or 14 workers, which is more than enough to cause significant delays, he said.
“There’s only 26 routes,” Sage said. “We use about 28 people a day, and we’ve been short anywhere from eight to 14 per day.
“We called temp agencies, and they sent us a grand total of one per day. That’s it.”
He believes there are several factors that are contributing to their specific predicament, including a lack of transportation to the company’s Hammonton headquarters, to more intense competition for seasonal labor in Atlantic County, from which SWS typically draws its staffers.
“Last year this time, you had no landscapers working, no restaurants on the beach,” Sage said.
“It was a huge change year-to-year. All these places opened up, and had a demand for people; the demand outpaced the supply.
“It really started about the first part of April, and we just saw some fallout, but it’s really gotten to a critical point in May,” he said.
“I think it’s the uptick in re-openings from COVID that’s really what’s on.”
Sage said he believes the fundamental changes to the labor market present no easy solutions for employers of all kinds.
If towns were to convert to automated trash collection, that would cut down on labor by eliminating the workers on the back of the truck. But he also hopes to incentivize workers who would otherwise choose higher-paying (but temporary) seasonal work with benefits commensurate with a full-time, year-round job.
“One thing I’m really stuck on is benefits for employees,” Sage said. “When we bought the company, every employee gets Blue Cross/Blue Shield health, dental, vision, and a $25,000 life insurance policy,” he said.
Sage’s message to residents of the communities who’ve experienced the delays in service: “Anything we can do to stay on schedule, we’re doing.
“We’re looking to serve the community out there and get it done right,” he said. “We don’t like running behind; everybody wants to do a good job. We fully intend to provide the service as it’s laid out in the contract at the end of the term.”
In the meantime, Sage invited “anybody who’s looking for work” to call the company at 609-561-0441.
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