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As coronavirus pandemic continues, trash, recycling and 311 calls pile up in Baltimore

Westport has become more of a dumping ground for trash lately, exacerbated by the pandemic and worker shortages at DPW.

Keisha Allen doesn’t live far from the Quarantine Road sanitation yard in South Baltimore, yet an ugly pile of trash — tires, tattered chairs, hefty trash bags and other pieces of furniture — lined the sidewalks of her Westport neighborhood for weeks.

The dumping problem has existed for years, said Allen, who works for a regional health care system, except before, when callers dialed into the city’s 311 line, operators could connect them with crews from Baltimore’s Department of Public Works to clear the trash away within a couple of days. But the city suspended bulk trash cleanup due to the coronavirus pandemic, so the trash piles up, leaving neighbors with few options except to dispose of it themselves or hire contractors.

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“We have day jobs,” said Allen, a neighborhood activist who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in June. “I don’t even own a truck. What am I supposed to do?”

As the coronavirus pandemic confines more people to their homes and disrupts the workforce, the Department of Public Works has struggled with an outbreak among workers at one facility that disrupted recycling for three weeks. More at risk of being exposed to COVID-19 than those who can work remotely, many department employees refused to show up for shifts in June, leading to delays in services, including trash and recycling pickup.

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Since then, most of the workers who did not report to work earlier this summer have returned, department spokeswoman Yolanda Winkler said in an email. However, some have not, due to COVID-19 quarantine requirements, unrelated COVID-19 illnesses and use of leave, she added.

Even though routine service has resumed, pickup delays and gaps in service completion still dog residents.

Mark Miazga, who lives in Northeast Baltimore’s Waltherson neighborhood, said that while he empathizes with solid waste crews, he wishes the department would notify his neighborhood about potential pickup delays before they happen.

“This summer’s been inconsistent, with recycling especially,” he said. “If you can’t handle it, just let us know so this is not sitting outside all week.”

Unsurprisingly, city data shows the completion rate for 311 service calls dipped this year relative to last, dropping to a four-year low of about 68% in June. Last June, the department completed nearly 78% percent of its service calls on time. In July 2020, the rate increased to 74%, down just three percentage points from the same time a year ago.

Baltimore has long struggled with curbing blight and waste in some parts of the city, and a Sun analysis conducted in December revealed that 311 service completion hinges largely on where callers live, with Southeastern Baltimore residents regularly getting their requests fulfilled on time in contrast with most of the city, including Allen’s neighborhood.

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young campaigned to keep his seat in City Hall in part on a promise of cleaning up the city and eliminating the 311 service backlog by April. But then the pandemic swept into the city, and City Council President Brandon Scott defeated Young in the primary election in June.

Meanwhile, city data shows that calls to the Department of Public Works peaked in July — a record high of 96,700 calls — and was preceded by 96,100 calls in June, the second-highest volume ever logged.

This time last year, the department fielded 66,000 calls in June and 76,000 in July, city data shows.

But more than half of those were calls for information — such as, “When is trash pickup day?” — which are different from calls about a specific service such as rat abatement. Those were actually down in June and July compared with last year.

Some city residents are taking the trash into their own hands.

Taurus Barksdale, who also ran unsuccessfully for City Council’s 6th District this year, started his own moving and hauling company in 2018. Since the pandemic, he’s been getting more calls, especially about bulk trash pickup.

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He’s found mattresses, couches and hazardous needles while cleaning up alleys for clients.

“One of the issues is the low pay for the workers,” said Barksdale, adding that he understands why trash removal workers have called out sick.

John T. Bullock, a City Council Democrat representing much of West Baltimore in the city’s 9th District — which leads all other districts in the number of calls to 311 — said he and his council colleagues have been working with the department to lower the number of requests for information and service.

“Not only do we see delays, but repeat activity at some of those same locations,” he said. “We know we need to make sure streets and alleys and neighborhoods are clean, but we can’t penalize [DPW employees] for having health issues.”

Bullock said the city should support workers who do not feel safe and expand testing for those employees and provide more personal protective equipment.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think there are a lot of good answers at this point, especially if folks are calling out sick,” he said. “We have a large volume ... and it may happen for the foreseeable future.”

Winkler, the Public Works spokeswoman, said employee health remains the priority, which has caused the bulk trash suspension and service delays.

311 requests

While declining at the onset of Maryland's coronavirus outbreak, requests to Baltimore's 311 service have surged in recent months. Driving the increase have been informational requests, such as inquiries about trash and recycling disruptions, as opposed to those the city flags for follow-up action. | Source: Open Baltimore
While declining at the onset of Maryland's coronavirus outbreak, requests to Baltimore's 311 service have surged in recent months. Driving the increase have been informational requests, such as inquiries about trash and recycling disruptions, as opposed to those the city flags for follow-up action. | Source: Open Baltimore (Baltimore Sun Graphic)

“Workers reporting to Solid Waste Sanitation Yards have daily check-ins which include temperature checks, distribution of PPEs and work permitted attire and safety precaution reminders,” she said in an email.

Earlier Tuesday, Winkler confirmed the death of a Public Works employee in the solid waste division, but she provided no details about whether it was work- or coronavirus-related.

Antoinette Ryan-Johnson, president of the City Union of Baltimore, said in a statement that city workers have felt the brunt of the pandemic. Labor representatives are working to ensure employee safety and secure appropriate compensation for their “herculean efforts,” she added.

On its website, Public Works posted that bulk trash collection, graffiti cleanup and mechanical street sweeping had been suspended as of July. Meanwhile, alley cleaning, boarding, routine trash collection, recycling, mowing and rat abatement had resumed after previous schedule “adjustments.”

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“Trash collection is very physically demanding work, and workers who are not accustomed to it may need more time to complete a route,” the department wrote on the website. “Thank you for your extended patience while the Department of Public Works Solid Waste Crews face unprecedented challenges.”

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Young spokesman James Bentley said the mayor will continue to look for proactive solutions to the problems.

“We pay taxes here, too. They leave it for us to deal with, but we’re not your employees.”


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“He understands the difficulties the department is facing right now, trying to keep the city clean and also having to deal with the pandemic,” Bentley said.

After Allen, the South Baltimore resident, posted Sunday about the trash pileup on Twitter, crews removed the debris from her street by Tuesday. Still, she said, the city has to work harder to meet its responsibilities to keep streets safe and clean.

“We pay taxes here, too,” she said of her neighborhood. “They leave it for us to deal with, but we’re not your employees.”

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