“Nobody Wants to Pick Up Your Trash”

American Labor Shortage

The labor shortage is trash. Like, literally, there is more trash lying around as American governments struggle to hire more sanitation workers.

Government jobs are still well below their pre-pandemic state — about 780,000 are missing — and that could be impacting everything from trash getting picked up to staffing dispatchers for 911 calls. For instance, a quarter of the jobs in Baltimore’s public works department are still unfilled.

Trash pick-ups have been one sector impacted by workers opting not to return to in-person roles, or switching roles altogether. Job switching was up in July, and the record number of workers quitting has remained high from April through June — signaling that quitting for higher wages or better work-life balance is a powerful trend.

Retirement is one driving factor behind the current labor tightness, according to experts. An analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City found that the number of people retiring rose 1.3% from February 2020 to June 2021, which means an increase of 3.6 million retirees.

The trouble especially lies with jobs that have to be done in person. Billionaire Tesla CEO Elon Musk said just last week that “in the future, physical work will be a choice,” and everyone seems to want the remote-working lifestyle enjoyed by white-collar employees.

The results can be, in a word, trashy.

In Baltimore, City Administrator Christopher Shorter told Bloomberg that over 100 workers in the public works department have either retired or left for private sector roles. The result? “Overflowing garbage cans downtown and illegal dumping.”

America’s largest city has been seized by the issue, too. Kathryn Garcia, the New York City mayoral candidate who narrowly lost to Eric Adams, left her role as city sanitation chief in 2020 in part over layoffs and cuts. The city slashed $106 million from the sanitation budget that year. “There will be a significant reduction in service and these were just really difficult choices,” Garcia said at the time.

Separately, Chattanooga, Tennessee, saw their recycling pickups temporarily halted as the city tried to staff up and hire more drivers. New Orleans also faced similar issues, with trash pickups lagging amidst hiring woes.

In both cases, one answer to address hiring woes emerged: Paying drivers more. In New Orleans, one of the firms contracted to pick up trash raised driver pay from $14 an hour to $17 an hour. That led them to be able to hire seven more drivers off the bat. 

Mayor Tim Kelly will raise pay for drivers from $31,000 to $45,000, around a 43% pay increase. Experts have suggested that upping pay — or raising the minimum wage altogether — could be one key to luring in workers. Even President Joe Biden has said bringing wages above $15 might help.

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