Omicron complicates trash, recycling collections across metro Atlanta

Omicron variant puts as much as 20% of sanitation workers out of commission

It’s now been nearly a month since Robert Appell’s recycling was picked up.

The cardboard and aluminum cans started piling up before Christmas, the pile only mounting after the holiday. Storms have come and gone, spreading uncollected items across his eastern Gwinnett County neighborhood.

“It started blowing all over the neighborhood and it’s kind of unsightly,” Appell, 66, told The Atlanta Journal Constitution this week. He’s since moved his cardboard to the trash.

For nearly two years now, the COVID-19 pandemic has created sporadic issues for government sanitation departments and private collectors across metro Atlanta.

But the recent rise of the virus’ uber-contagious omicron variant has taken things to a new level, infecting as much as one-fifth of various workforces at a time and leaving the remaining employees scrambling to catch up.

The most persisting issues appear to be in Gwinnett, where county officials have been inundated with calls from constituents — some comparing their communities to war zones. But the problem has seemingly impacted haulers from Clayton to Cobb.

Republic Services, which covers Appell’s neighborhood near Auburn and about 67,000 other customers, suspended recycling, yard waste and bulky item collection last week. It only recently completed missed trash pickups and started addressing “small pockets” of recycling, according to county officials.

Waste Management, another company serving residents in Gwinnett and several other parts of metro Atlanta, has warned customers they may continue to experience delays in garbage and recycling pick-up.

Other companies and local governments throughout the region have taken varying approaches to dealing with COVID-fueled staffing issues — and seen varying levels of success.

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In Cobb County, American Disposal Services provides sanitation services to more than half of residents in unincorporated areas. General manager John Elliott recently sent a message to customers saying they too were experiencing shortages and delays should be expected.

In Atlanta, the staffing issues began before Christmas, Department of Public Works Commissioner Al Wiggins Jr. told a City Council committee on Tuesday. On Dec. 20, about 20% of the department’s staff was out.

Things got worse from there.

At one point, Wiggins said, only 80 of the 190 city workers dedicated to trash pick-up were available. The city prioritized trash and put recycling on the backburner.

And while staffing has continued to increase slightly, the commissioner said he expects it to be the end of the month before normal service is resumed.

Crews are working “into the evening hours and throughout the weekend” to pick up recycling that was missed, Wiggins said.

Nearby DeKalb County also runs its own sanitation department. In the first week of January, the department saw an average of 72 absences — or 21% of its entire workforce — per day.

The county prioritized trash collection and had no delays on that end, officials said. Recycling and yard waste services were not suspended, but they did run behind.

Available crews extended their usual Monday through Thursday work week and kept at it on Friday and Saturday. By the end of the weekend, officials said, everything was caught up except for “some yard debris collection in the northern part of the county.”

Staffers are being reallocated to that part of the county this week. The plan is to extend the work week again as well.

“The morale has been pretty good,” Eric Holston, DeKalb sanitation’s assistant director, told The AJC.

The health situation appears to be improving as well.

On Monday, 41 DeKalb sanitation employees — or less than half of the previous high — were out with COVID.

County officials said they’ve been sanitizing trucks; providing masks, wipes and gloves to workers; and giving rapid COVID tests to anyone who is experiencing symptoms or believes they may have been exposed.

“We’re addressing the missed routes,” DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond said, “but also trying to keep our workers in a safer environment.”

Staff writers Ben Brasch, J.D. Capelouto, Brian Eason and Leon Stafford contributed to this article.