Metro & City Promise Trash Pickup Improvement, 311 Calls Suggest Otherwise

Chartres Sidewalk Can” by Infrogmation is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The mayor’s office released a press statement August 4th affirming the sentiment expressed in a letter addressed to the Metro Service Group signed by Matt Torri, Director of the Department of Sanitation. The letter notably states: “Unfortunately, as of August 3rd, 2021, Metro reported that collections in Service Area 2 remain a half-day behind. Metro has communicated that it expects to be completely caught up by August 10, 2021, and we fully anticipate that Metro will realize this goal by the target date.”

This is puzzling for multiple reasons. At the beginning of July, Metro committed to resolve the issue in thirty days following months of excessive late pickup reports. They did not. It was unclear exactly what benchmarks needed to be met in those thirty days other than complaints of a labor shortage, and despite Metro “hiring seven new drivers since the July 8 Council Meeting and solidifying partnerships with solid waste providers to provide additional crews and equipment,” the issue carries on today. 

The city and Metro report “stabilized collections,” but it’s unclear what that means. Big Easy Magazine examined the public record of 311 calls for just the first four days of August and found a rate that doesn’t suggest a strong degree of stabilization. 

On August 4th alone, there were 113 calls recorded in regard to late pickups by Metro. Overall, there was a total 315 calls to 311 since August 1st reporting late trash or recycling pickups that Metro was responsible for. This averages out to about 79 calls a day – a slight reduction from previous months, but still an alarming rate. 

In fact, some report even further delays in pickups. Woods has stated that they hoped to hire 8 to 10 new drivers, but 16 or 17 would be ideal. However, it’s unclear exactly how much new hires translate to reduced rates of 311 calls, whether the necessary amount of new hires will occur before the 10th, and whether that will immediately affect delays.

Absent clear benchmarks set by Metro and the city, it’s unclear how this rate of 311 calls portends a return to normalcy by August 10th. This isn’t to say Metro has done nothing to improve their service. Wage increases, new hires, and cooperative motions have been cited since the beginning of late pickups – all these things are good. Metro Services Group CEO, Jimmie Woods, has expressed dismay and apologized for delays. However, a lack of clarity has defined the discourse surrounding late pickups, which we’ve previously reported on.

Further evidence of this lack of clarity is the last paragraph of Matt Torri’s letter. It states that “while the City is optimistic that Metro will be able to maintain their stabilized collections, failure to consistently deliver these contracted services for the duration of the contract may result in the City assessing damages.” This is questionably worded and brings up the question of the city’s contract with Metro. 

The question of the city contract is multi-faceted. Metro previously stated that the city contract limited them from adequately competing in a competitive labor market, but has since acted outside of contractual limitations to address these issues. The city has previously stated that it reserves the right to fine Metro for non-compliance, but has not done so. It’s unclear what the city contract does and does not do in this ad-hoc environment. 

This makes it unclear whether the city wants to support Metro or is simply not acting on their contract. Absent a lack of fines, it’s not apparent what they’ve done to actively assist the company to meet the obligations of an archaic 7-year-old contract agreed to prior to pandemic conditions.

An article once shared by Metro to explain the labor shortage cited the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) who advocates that, “Communities that contract for waste and recycling collection services may have to renegotiate their contracts to reflect wage increases associated with driver and helper positions or reductions in service levels needed to minimize budget impacts.” There has yet to be any mention of a serious revision to the city’s contract with Metro.

Metro Service Group’s most recent statement on their website is from July 9th and claims that the company is part of the Louisiana Workforce Commission’s (LWC) “Back to Work Louisiana” campaign, an effort to stimulate employment in Louisiana in response to pandemic-related unemployment. LWC hosted a lot of job fairs around the state this week, but with another surge of coronavirus sweeping across New Orleans and the rest of the state, it’s unclear how actionable this August 10th date is.

Matt Torri’s letter offers an explanation for the city’s reason for optimism, “Metro has outlined plans in recent meetings to continue to aggressively expand its workforce via increased compensation and direct recruitment campaigns, while also finalizing long-term agreements with the solid waste providers to supplement Metro’s operations.” Whether or not these strategies are sufficient to achieve drastic reductions in late pickups in the immediate short term is yet to be seen.

There’s a difficult dynamic at play. As Will Sutton writes, “residents could care less who gets what and why it’s happening. They simply want it fixed.” Clearly the issue is complex, but when it comes to essential services, the public generally does not care about nuance. Nor should they, piling trash is an undeniable public health hazard. It’s understandable that the city and Metro want to continue giving goal dates within sight, but if they continue to move the goalpost, their strategy may turn on them. 

This contract will inevitably have to be revisited once this issue is resolved. SWANA’s most recent report on sanitation labor shortages offers a variety of long-term solutions. These solutions include: higher wages; promoting industry jobs as recession resistant and long-term career opportunities; renegotiating city contracts to reflect necessary wage increases and service adjustments; adjusting collection fees and public budgets accordingly; and the utilization of automated collection trucks where feasible. Only a few of these have been seen in the case of Metro’s late pickups, but it seems incumbent of the city and Metro to engage with these strategies going forward.

Big Easy Magazine reached out to the mayor’s office for comment on the press statement, but received no response.

Late pickups stink and so does a lack of clear communication with the public. Regardless of whether Metro manages to tackle this issue within the new window, it’s odiously clear that the city needs to seriously reevaluate how it should adequately provide sanitation services. The pandemic has fundamentally changed the terms of essential services and the city should act accordingly.

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