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Labor Shortage Hits Dallas Trash Collection, City Says

Your recycling might hang around for a couple days while the city looks to boost pay for sanitation workers. Bigger changes to trash pickup may be coming.

Dallas sanitation officials say you can blame the labor shortage roiling industries across the U.S. for any delays in your recycling pickup this month. Short on workers, the city warned Tuesday that crews are prioritizing garbage collection. Residents in some neighborhoods could see their recycling (in the blue roller bins) hanging around for up to 48 hours past schedule, “on a rotating basis, over the next several weeks, until staffing levels stabilize.”

In the near-term, the city is looking to increase pay for laborers. Speaking on the phone Wednesday, Tim Oliver, the interim director of sanitation services, says the city uses a temporary staffing agency for many of its workers. Right now, the sanitation department pays these temporary laborers $12.38 an hour, he says. In August, a new contract will go into effect that pays $15.21 an hour, in line with the MIT “living wage” calculation for the area. (If you’re single with no children.) Oliver says the sanitation department is trying to change the language on its current contract to go ahead and raise pay to that level right now.

That could go some way toward addressing the current labor shortage, which Oliver says can be attributed to the same causes driving shortages in other industries. What are those causes? It’s complicated, as my colleague Rosin Saez covered when she wrote about this issue in the restaurant industry. But employers, including the city, are increasingly realizing one way to entice workers: Pay them more fairly.

Dallas is also considering pay raises for truck drivers, who do work directly for the city, Oliver says. They start at $16 an hour, while comparable jobs in the private sector pay $18 to $20 an hour.

In the longer term, he says the sanitation department could cut back on labor issues by cutting back on labor. About half the city’s fleet is made up of automated garbage trucks operated by a single driver, Oliver says. These are the trucks with the big robot claws (not the technical term) that pick up and empty collection bins. The rest require a driver along with one or two workers to empty trash and recycling bins into the truck.

Routes that use automated trucks have not seen any delays in recycling pickup, Oliver says. They are more efficient. But they won’t fit into the alleyways where many Dallas residents now put out their trash and recycling. “We are really outdated in our collection style. Anywhere you look it’s mostly automated,” he says. “Dallas is unique because we’ve got so many alleys, and a lot of them are old alleys.”

Dallas City Council members batted around a so-called “end to alley trash collection” last year. Last month, city officials publicly weighed changes to the bulk trash and brush collection program. A fear raised then was how residents might respond to a new system. Some people really like putting their trash and recycling out in their alleyway. How would they feel about moving it to the curb in front of their house once a week instead?

However they feel, they might have to adapt. The world is changing. People are changing. Trash pickup is changing.