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Baltimore councilmen call for city to resume recycling pickup, raise pay for sanitation workers

Baltimore City Councilmen Zeke Cohen, left, and Isaac Schleifer, right, hold a news conference regarding recycling at the city’s facility on Sisson Street

Two Baltimore councilmen called on the city Wednesday to resume recycling pickup and give raises to sanitation workers, a day after the Department of Public Works announced that the pause in services would continue through Dec. 15.

Councilmen Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Zeke Cohen held a news conference outside the Northwest Citizens' Convenience Center on Sisson Street, one of the sites where residents can drop off recyclables. At times Wednesday, lines of cars clogged traffic beside the facility, toting trash like mattresses and appliances, plus trunks full of recyclables.

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“Some people in our city don’t have a car. They can’t drive all the way here to Sisson Street,” Cohen said. “It is fundamentally unfair to the people that live here that our DPW is consistently failing to get trash and recycling online.”

The pause on recycling pickup has been in effect since late August and had originally been scheduled to end in November. The city’s Department of Public Works initially said staffing shortages as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and hot weather were to blame.

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In a statement, the department said staffing shortages have persisted. Of 259 employees, 171 reported to work in August, 175 in September and 184 in October, the statement read.

Four public works employees couldn’t work in October due to positive COVID-19 tests or exposure to someone who had tested positive for the virus, according to the department.

Bureau of Solid Waste drivers George McLee, left, and Reginald Brown, center, help city resident John Veneron, right, dispose of his recycling. This afternoon, City Council members Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer and Zeke Cohen held a news conference at the city's recycling facility on Sisson Street to call for raises for sanitation workers.
Bureau of Solid Waste drivers George McLee, left, and Reginald Brown, center, help city resident John Veneron, right, dispose of his recycling. This afternoon, City Council members Isaac "Yitzy" Schleifer and Zeke Cohen held a news conference at the city's recycling facility on Sisson Street to call for raises for sanitation workers. (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

“There have been few applicants for open positions and it has been an ongoing challenge to recruit and retain employees for curbside collections,” the statement read.

Schleifer said the issues with the department’s workforce aren’t new. Both councilmen are pushing the mayor’s office to give $4 per hour raises to temporary sanitation workers, who make as little as $11 an hour, and work with the relevant union to do the same for permanent workers, Schleifer said.

“They get their first paycheck, they see how small it is, and they see how hard they’ve been working,” he said of the workers.

Schleifer and Cohen were among the majority of council members who backed a resolution calling for the raises.

“This is not a situation that we can continue to kick the can down the road and kick it to the next mayoral administration,” he said.

The councilmen are also pushing the mayor’s office to use CARES Act coronavirus relief funding, which must be used by the end of the year, to give $5,000 bonuses to Department of Public Works sanitation workers.

In a statement, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young said he had commissioned a study that resulted in an almost 4% wage increase for solid waste workers. The city also pays solid waste employees a “COVID-19 Mission Critical Stipend” of $200 per pay period, Young wrote.

The city is working to cut down on temporary positions that do not offer benefits in the department, he wrote.

“This will undoubtedly reduce attrition within the Bureau of Solid Waste and provide for more efficient service delivery,” Young wrote.

Young had harsh words for Cohen and Schleifer.

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“If the Councilmembers of the 1st and 5th Districts would seek out information as readily as they seek out news cameras and if they would fight to identify real solutions to the City’s ills as vigorously as they fight for photo ops, we could collaboratively work to solve many more problems for the residents of Baltimore,” Young wrote.

Schleifer said he’s heard from a number of constituents frustrated with the pickup pause. Since late August, the city has urged residents to drop off their recycling at one of 14 collection centers (one for each City Council district), or one of five drop-off centers, like the one at Sisson Street. They’re open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays, and, starting this week, they’ll be open from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“People are growing more frustrated by the day,” Schleifer said. “They’re very upset about the whole situation, and they also don’t see it getting any better.”

Sandy Sause of Hampden stopped by to drop off her recycling, which she’d been keeping on the parking pad in her backyard.

“I wish they picked up, but if it means preserving the health of people who have to come to work and have to deal with all this, it’s not a big deal," said Sause, who said she drops off her recyclables at the facility about once a month. “I’d rather have them be healthy.”

As of Tuesday, residents had dropped off 916.15 tons at community collection and drop-off centers citywide. About 26,300 people have visited community collection centers, according to the department.

George McLee, a DPW driver, used to help clean up graffiti in the city, but has since been transferred to deal with waste collection. On Wednesday, he was helping residents who stopped by the center on Sisson Street toss their recyclables into the back of a waiting truck, which he said often involves rooting through items to pull out nonrecyclables.

Some people find the new process convenient, he said, but plenty of others are eager for curbside pickup to start once more.

“A lot of people have been asking questions,” he said. “We couldn’t give them an exact date."

Alice Volpitta, the Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper at Blue Water Baltimore, said she noticed more trash in local waterways during routine monitoring earlier in the pandemic, particularly after the city suspended street sweeping operations in mid-March.

Lately, things have improved, she said, although upcoming rainstorms could produce telling runoff.

Volpitta said she hopes the city’s shutdown of recycling pickup will act as a wake-up call for residents, who cannot dispose of their recyclables as easily.

“We keep our recycling in a recycling bin in the corner of the kitchen,” she said. “From my own experience of watching that bin just grow and grow … it’s really making me personally think twice about my own consumption. ...

“Just because you’re putting it in a recycling bin and it’s being taken away from your home, it’s not going away.”

Now could be the perfect time to remind residents to cut down on their plastic use, she said, and for the city to consider other programs that could remove recyclables from trash bins and streets, like a program that would pay citizens to collect and return plastic bottles.

“Might as well make a change now,” Volpitta said, “because everything’s already changing around us.”

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