Backyard pick-up debate reignited
The City Council will consider later this year whether to take measures to reduce the remaining number of backyard trash collections.
The city moved to do away with backyard collection in 2005 when it implemented a voluntary policy that asked residents to place their trash on curbs; in 2010, that policy became mandatory for all residents except for those with medical exemptions or who live in some multifamily complexes.
According to Assistant City Manager Greg Turner, who oversees Sanitation, out of 77,000 households serviced, 2,700 still receive backyard collection, accounting for five percent of collections. But the Citizens’ Organizational Efficiency Review Committee, which was appointed by the City Council to find ways to save the City money, wants to reduce backyard collections even further. It is recommending that residents receive a doctor’s note in order to be exempt from taking their trash to the curb; the existing policy only requires residents to submit a form stating that no one in the household is able to bring the trash cart to the curb. The stricter requirement is already used in cities like Greensboro, which has only one percent backyard collection. It would save the city an estimated $114,000.
Sanitation workers are all in favor of reducing backyard collections. They say hauling trash from backyards is backbreaking work and can lead to uncomfortable confrontations with homeowners. Angelia Byrd, a former sanitation truck driver, said that going into a person’s yard, sometimes before the sun rises, can lead to confusion and hostility from residents.
“If it can be done without (backyard collection) it’d be great for the protection of customers and employees as well,” said Byrd. “Because you got customers who don’t want people fumbling around their house.”
Byrd was fired after a conflict with a resident who receives backyard collection. Byrd said her three-person crew was struggling to collect the woman’s garbage because it was far in excess of what the 96-gallon carts sanitation workers use could hold. Byrd said she told a co-worker that the resident’s trash was more than they were supposed to collect, which, according to Byrd, led the woman to direct racial slurs at her.
Byrd was axed after the Sanitation Department found faults in her actions. She maintains she did nothing wrong and recently brought her wrongful termination claim before the City Council.
Despite the incident, Byrd said altercations with customers were very rare during her six years as a sanitation worker. She said a larger problem with backyard collection is injury. Uneven terrain, especially in wet or icy weather, can lead to falls and the general strain from lifting trash takes a toll on the body, she said.
Curtis McLaurin, who has been with the sanitation department for 26 years, agrees. He said sanitation workers get an earful from residents who want to
vent their frustrations about things like annexation or dropping property values on the first government employee they see, but truly abusive residents are rare.
The damage done to the body, however, is common, he said. Backyard collection requires workers to empty residents’ trash cans by lifting them and dumping their contents into the 96-gallon carts, which have to be rolled back to the garbage truck.
“You can find a slew of stuff in those cans and if you do that on a regular basis sometimes at some point, your back is going to give out because you have to lift those cans or lift those bags,” said McLaurin, who said backyard collection also makes workers more prone to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Curbside pickup is less arduous. City residents have been issued oversized carts for their trash that they roll to the curb on pickup day. Trucks are designed to lift and empty the contents of the carts.
The sanitation department’s web site argues that curbside collection is a health as well as a financial issue. Curbside collection, according to the site, “increases the number of Sanitation employees who are able to work until retirement” because the 40 miles a week workers walked when backyard collection was in effect led to most workers leaving the department because of disabilities.
McLaurin formed a sanitation workers’ union in 2005 to give workers a collective voice, but since state law forbids the City from recognizing or negotiating with a union, the organization is currently inactive.
He said stricter standards are needed for backyard collection because he has seen able-bodied residents take advantage of the service.
“I know what it was meant to be, but it’s not working,” he said. “There are many people abusing it, if not the majority.”
Turner said the transition from backyard to curbside pickup led to a reduction in the manpower needed on trash collection routes, but layoffs in the sanitation department were avoided by eliminating positions through attrition. Turner said the same policy could be used to avoid layoffs if the City Council adopts the Citizens’ Organizational Efficiency Review Committee’s recommendation.
East Ward City Council member Derwin Montgomery, vice chair of the Public Works Committee, was on the City Council when it approved the move to curbside in 2010. He said he supported the move to both save money and improve the working conditions of sanitation workers.
“When you look at most major cities across the country, that’s how trash is picked up,” he said.
Montgomery said the City adopted a liberal policy on curbside pickup exemption because it was a new program, but always planned to review it. He said he’s undecided on requiring a doctor’s note because he’s unsure how it’ll affect those with limited access to health care who may truly need the exemption but have not means of securing a note from a doctor. He plans to listen to what his constituents have to say on the issue when he holds a budget town hall meeting in the coming months.