Last week Palm Coast government issued Waste Pro, the city’s garbage hauler since 2007, a seven-day notice: shape up, or the $9 million contract with the city is severed for cause.
Waste pro service had again faltered severely, principally with missed routes and garbage left to rot in the sun in scenes worthier of shanty towns than Palm Coast. Fines the city levies against the company climbed for six successive months, topping $10,000 in May, a level last exceeded (twice) in 2019. The company was put on notice back then. And again in April, when a Waste Pro vice president for regional operations said the problem would be “corrected within a couple of weeks.” It wasn’t, causing the city again to issue a seven-day warning.
On Wednesday, three Waste Pro representatives–Corporate Vice President of Municipal Marketing Tim Dolan, Regional Vice President Brian Wintjen, and Division Manager Heather Badger-Felmet–met with Palm Coast officials and again pledged to do better.
“They have purchased three new trucks, they have exponentially increased the wages for their current employees and for their new hires,” Brittany Kershaw, the city’s chief spokesperson, who was part of the meeting, said this morning. “They have also implemented a sign-on bonus, I believe it was $2,000, for people who come on board. They’re actively working at job fairs trying to find drivers and haulers. They’ve also contacted with another hauler to help with the routes.”
Drivers, for example, were making $140 a day, or $36,400 a year. They will now be making $175 a day, or $45,500 a year. Kershaw did not have rates for other employees or who the temporary haulers are and what their trucks would look like.
“We want to be sensitive to the issues the Waste Pro and many organizations across the country have been experiencing over the past year or so,” Palm Coast Interim City Manager Denise Bevan said in a release. “We’re committed to working together with Waste Pro to come up with a solution that best serves the residents of Palm Coast.” (Other than Bevan and Kershaw, city officials taking part in the meeting with Waste Pro included Fire Chief Jerry Forte, Chief of Staff Lauren Johnston, Citizen Engagement Director Cynthia Schweers, and Customer Service Supervisor Lisa Asbill.)
Waste Pro’s plan read as follows, as signed by Wintjen:
- We are caught up with all services currently.
- All routes are covered for Tuesday June 1, 2021.
- Along with holding job fairs we are running local radio ad’s for available positions.
- We have made arrangements with Flagler Technical College to speak with students enrolled in the truck driving school.
- We have purchased and received three brand new Rear-loader trucks.
- We have hired two additional Drivers and we have made offers to three more.
- We are utilizing additional Temporary Labor services and have obtained additional helpers.
- As stated in my email dated on April 1, 2021, we have given wage increases to all of our current drivers and helpers. We have increased pay to our temporary helpers. We have increased starting pay for new employees and we are offering sign-on bonuses.
- We are looking at other disposal options that may reduce disposal trip time.
- We have hired a 3rd party waste collector who will work with us beginning June 1 to assist us on any routes needing assistance. We will add additional 3rd party help as needed.
- We have promoted two addition supervisors and two more office staff employees.
“Through the use of a corporate recruiter focused on the Palm Coast area, we have enhanced our recruiting efforts as well as increased our participation in local job fairs – we hosted three in the recent weeks,” the plan states. “Retention and referral bonuses have also been implemented and a market rate adjustment was recently completed. We appreciate your patience and the support of our community as we continue to navigate through these unprecedented times.”
The first two paragraphs of the company’s “Service Plan” are the word-for-word replica of an answer by Melissa Catalanotto, the company’s corporate communications manager, to reporters last week after inquiries about the company’s difficulties in Palm Coast. “Like other industries, we are not immune to the ongoing nationwide driver and labor pool shortages that have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The demand for qualified drivers currently outpaces supply,” Catalanotto and the Service Plan state.
The statement then goes on to repeat false and repeatedly debunked claims, implicitly insulting the very workers the company is trying to hire, that government assistance related to the pandemic “have made it more attractive for many people to not work.”
In other words, it’s not Waste Pro’s fault. It’s the workers’.
In fact, Waste Pro itself provided the very rationales about work shortages in the industry back in 2019, when its service was severely lacking in Palm Coast, and when there were no stimulus checks or extra unemployment benefits to speak of. Its significant increase in pay for workers is an acknowledgement that wages were too low. And Catalanotto, in her answer to reporters, attached a report from the Solid Waste Association of North America “addressing the labor shortage in solid waste collection services” that cites many other issues predating stimulus checks.
The report cites a difficult hiring climate, “particularly in Florida” (the state with one of the stingiest and shortest unemployment benefit in the nation). “Truck driver shortages have been well documented due to the strong economy and increased demand for trucking services caused in part by the substantial growth in online shopping and home delivery services,” the report states. “Additional causes include the aging workforce and more stringent driver requirements at the federal level.” While the pandemic has had an effect on hauling, the report lists those effects as increased garbage tonnage, covid illnesses, school closures, and the lack of affordable child care options, forcing parents to stay home. “These impacts are being experienced by many other service industries, including the restaurant industry.” It then cites “extended unemployment benefits and stimulus checks,” though again without explaining how the same challenges previously cited–tonnage aside–long pre-dated the pandemic.
If Waste Pro again falters, then the city would again issue a seven-day warning, Kershaw said. But at what point would the cycle end? ““I don’t know at which point it gets escalated beyond that,” Kershaw said.
The city is in the midst of preparing to issue a request for proposal for the next garbage hauler contract, since the contract with Waste Pro ends in 2022. The RFP is not the result of the city’s difficulties with Waste Pro. It was in the works regardless, as it has been every five years. But Waste Pro’s chronic difficulties could damage the company’s chances, even though two thirds of residents in a recent city survey cited themselves satisfied with their garbage service. (In comparison, over 90 percent are satisfied with police, fire and feeling safe).