Recycling overtime cost nears $1M
Waste management workers log over 33,000 extra hours, but backlog remains
Victor Ayres, manager of the city’s Fleet Management Department, surveyed three dozen garbage, recycling and bulk waste trucks outside of the Northwest Service Center on a recent Friday in the darkness before dawn. They had all been pulled off the road for repairs.
Meanwhile, on many Houston residential streets, overflowing blue or green bins had been sitting out for days, a constant reminder of basic city services that have yet to be carried out.
“We’re failing as a city,” said City Councilman Mike Knox, who said his yard waste has been awaiting pickup for so long that the biodegradable bags have begun to decompose. Knox was among many Houstonians complaining about garbage and recycling.
But the inactivity on the streets belied the hours spent by city drivers and mechanics attempting to eliminate the backlog.
Since mid-November, when delays began in earnest, employees have clocked over 33,000 hours of overtime — $948,000. On a recent evening, mechanics stayed at the Northwest Service Center until 1 a.m. before calling it a night. Four hours later, the next shift arrived, readying for another long day of repairs.
To deal with the situation at least in the short run, City Council will discuss whether to spend $5 million to pay a private recycling vendor to take over a quarter of the City’s recycling collection routes and to rent equipment, according to Solid
Waste Management Department Director Harry Hayes. The City Council recently approved $14.6 million worth of equipment replacements, but they likely will not arrive until August.
The city’s Solid Waste Management Department has been working virtually around the clock to keep aging garbage and recycling trucks on their routes. Over a decade of inadequate purchasing means there are 15year-old trucks on the road, while Solid Waste Director Harry Hayes recommends replacing trucks every three to four years.
At the same time, a national shortage of truck drivers and skilled labor has left the department shorthanded. Sometimes there are not enough drivers for all the trucks. Other times, the need for maintenance forces trucks to remain idle until one of the mechanics, who are also short-handed, can service them.
The department then has to reallocate the remaining trucks to make sure all the garbage routes are covered, which often means hours of overtime.
Walking down the line of Solid Waste vehicles that had been pulled off of the road, Ayres rattled off their model years: 2006, 2003, 1994.
He pointed at a truck with an arm used for picking up bulk waste. “That’s from 2003, so it’s probably on its last leg,” he said. “It’s been through Hurricane Ike, the Tax Day Flood, the Memorial Day Flood and Harvey” — all times when the trucks saw greater use, leading to greater wear and a shortened life span.
Houston is one of the only major metropolitan areas in the nation that does not directly charge a fee to pick up trash and recycling. Instead, it relies on tax dollars, which Hayes said means trucks are only replaced sporadically as they compete with other priorities in the General Fund.
The Fleet Management Department recommends that the city replace 25 trash and recycling trucks a year. Instead, 62 were bought in 2007, followed by over a decade of inadequate replacements. In 2008, 2013 and 2017, none was purchased.
“It’s either feast or famine,” Hayes said.
The morning Ayres reviewed offline trucks at the Northwest Service Center, seven garbage and recycling trucks were down, leaving the center one truck short — it was shuttled in from another center. Shortly after 6 a.m., drivers began arriving.
As they inspected their vehicles, dozens found issues and began to pull into the maintenance center to have them fixed before setting out on their routes. By 7 a.m., four lines had formed of trucks awaiting repairs.
Staff from across the department were called upon to help move the waiting trucks as quickly as possible. Dennis Alcorn, who usually works as a welder, busily set about replacing flat or stripped tires. “We’re a team,” he said. “It’s seven days, long hours.”
Ayres and Hayes hope seven-day weeks will soon become a thing of the past as resources trickle in. Five shiny new garbage and recycling trucks recently arrived; a total of 20 are due this month and another 12 should arrive in May. The most recent order for 26 more should come in around August.
Harold Armstrong, a senior mechanic, said the new arrivals have already picked up morale. And Hayes says that if the contracts with the private recycling vendor and equipment rental company go through, those services will begin Feb. 1.
It’s unclear whether Solid Waste will manage to address its worker shortage and replace its fleet on a more regular schedule. In the meantime, Knox said, “We’re going to have to do some serious soul searching looking at the administration of Solid Waste… This is one of our core city services.”
Mac Tollvier, assistant director of the fleet management department for Houston, explained how maintaining the aging fleet is a struggle while being severely understaffed.
Tracy Kennard, 54, a mechanic for the city’s Waste Management Department, waves into the garage the first of many garbage trucks that need maintenance.