DeKalb County workers have close ties, relatively speaking

Trash runs in the family in DeKalb County.

Three cousins work out of one of the sanitation division’s lots as refuse collectors. A husband and wife pair operate equipment at separate transfer stations. One supervisor’s brother, son and nephew work in different locations across the county.

One out of every 10 of the division’s 729 workers is related in some fashion, according to a list of relatives provided by the county. The reasons why are varied. Billy Malone, who heads the county’s trash operation, says that one of the biggest is a common thread across the entire public sector.

Some families are drawn to firefighting or law enforcement. Others gravitate towards solid waste.

“There’s something about it,” Malone said. “It gets in the blood.”

County policy allows relatives to work in the same department, as long as they do not supervise each other— a practice that is largely banned elsewhere, such as in Fulton and Cobb counties.

DeKalb officials argue that while the sheer number of relatives can cause logistical challenges, it works because the division is so vast.

Sanitation makes up more than one-tenth of the county’s workforce of some 6,500. Employees are spread out over 12 locations and often work in the field in crews of two or three. Making sure one relative doesn’t end up as another’s boss isn’t so hard, Malone said.

Neither is finding entry-level workers. The jobs start in the low-$20,000s, but they provide good benefits and are among the few that accept unskilled high school dropouts. Job postings — which appear online, on bulletin boards and sometimes with trade associations — can yield 1,000 applications, Malone said.

Keeping employees is another story. New hires have to get used to working in the snow, heat and dark. Some use the jobs as stepping stones to positions in other fields.

Yearly turnover can range from 5 to 15 percent.

“Some people will not do it,” Malone said. “But the people who stay really care.”

These long-time employees often live in the neighborhoods where they are assigned. Their loyalty grows as the county helps them move up the ranks by teaching them skills like operating specialized equipment or driving a truck. They become proud to work in a field that serves the public, and so they recommend jobs to their family.

You could say that this fosters a sense of camaraderie that’s unique to sanitation.

“It’s kind of a big family thing,” Malone said.

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