Seemingly every industry is finding it hard to attract new employees and that rings true for the folks responsible for handling the garbage created by everyone else.
The Lamoille Regional Solid Waste Management District has found itself in a pinch with staffing levels in recent months, leading to temporary closures at some of its half-dozen transfer stations across its 12-town service area.
District manager Susan Alexander said this week the district has made a few new hires since last month, when she told the board of directors at its June meeting that staffing levels were so bad it was necessary to alternate closing the Morristown and Craftsbury transfer stations on a week-by-week basis.
Alexander said the district is now short by about two full-time employees (or full-time equivalents) “and at least one more person who can say, ‘I can work weekends.’”
Weekends are the busiest trash days, with the greatest number of transfer stations open — Lamoille Regional runs stations in Stowe, Johnson, Morrisville, Craftsbury, Worcester and Eden, although Eden closed during the pandemic and has not re-opened.
The Stowe station is open six days a week and can take the widest variety of rubbish. The Johnson station is basically a slimmed-down version of the Stowe facility, with the second-most hours and the second-highest level of services. Johnson has frequently been operating on Sundays to act as something of a release valve if a smaller station must close because of a lack of staffing, if an employee calls in sick or needs to take some personal time off.
There’s a ripple effect when one must hang the CLOSED sign for a day or two.
“We especially try not to close Stowe, because if you close just one day, then it’s twice as much the next day and the line can stretch out all the way to Mountain Road, which creates problems,” Alexander said.
To attract more workers, the district increased its pay last month, setting its starting salary for front-facing workers at $17 per hour. However, Alexander said the fiscal year budget was set in May and didn’t anticipate bumping up salaries. Plus, when an organization or business increases starting pay, it must be done across the board, she said.
“Otherwise, how does that reflect on your employees who have been there a long time, for decades in some instances?” Alexander said.
Recruiting isn’t easy. Employment in the waste management industry, especially on the ground in a trash collection capacity, can be hard work with a lot of physical exertion, sometimes dangerous or just plain gross materials — sharp edges, leaky fluids, busted bags with kitty litter spilling out; the possibilities are limitless.
Front-line transfer station workers aren’t getting the frequent shout-outs that health care workers or grocery store employees have gotten during the pandemic, and some customers can be downright rude when told they have to pay for recycling or keep their food scraps separate, Alexander said.
She was quick to note that, while “that very cranky customer can really blow your day,” most people who go to the transfer stations are nice. It’s a very rural Vermont event to bring your own trash to the transfer station in your town, since curbside pickup isn’t as widely implemented in larger population centers, so most customers have done this before, week in and week out, making trash day part of a routine. Longtime employees become familiar fixtures.
Plus, transfer station employees can divert much more refuse than the typical curbside trash pickup service — from TVs to tires, mattresses to microwaves, according to Alexander.
“They’ve been hard-working people, heroic, showing up through COVID, face to face with hundreds of people every day,” she said. “Everybody has to throw something away at some point.”
That became particularly true during the beginning months of the pandemic, when people spending more time at home decided to declutter that attic or basement and bring all that bulky stuff to one of the transfer stations — invariably either Stowe or Johnson, which have the best capacity to handle the myriad flotsam of domestic, commercial and industrial life.
The district raised its rates just as businesses around the state began doing the same to try and appeal to a shrinking job market. There has since been some one-upmanship, with even higher salaries and three-, four- and even five-figure signing bonuses.
Those places tend to be in the private sector, though, which can recoup those expenses by increasing the cost of their services or products. A solid waste management district is a utility, just as surely as an electric or water and sewer department, Alexander said.
“We don’t have the luxury of saying we can charge an extra quarter for this sandwich and make it up,” she said.