Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

 Your household fee rate for trash collection and recycling would rise 33 percent, under the county manager’s recent 2024 budget, hitting $409 a year as a result of cost increases in both the collection and recycling contracts.

To me it feels worth it. I rise early enough Mondays to witness all three visits during the day from three-man crews who guide their American Disposal trucks onto our cul de sac. In their safety reflector vests, the energizer-bunny-like workers (driver included) leap out and pull the wheeled carts  over to the rear-hatch electric lifts. Then they return the black, blue and green carts to their rightful houses’ curbs (mostly). Often the guys wave at customers, or shoot an imaginary basketball to our neighbors’ nearby hoop.

It takes character to do this messy job.

Once as a naïve college student, I tried to arrange to spend a summer playing professional trashman in San Francisco to be near a girlfriend. Turns out the unionized firms wouldn’t even consider me.

Remaining curious about the nature of the job in Arlington, I queried the managers of parent company, Canada-based Waste Connections, but they declined an interview.

Up stepped Adam Riedel, principal environmental management specialist at the county’s Environmental Services Department, to explain today’s challenges.

 The waste management business is going through “a very competitive market for drivers and labor right now,” he said. “It’s tough to recruit because many can drive an Amazon truck, with easier work and pay that’s about the same.” Though many trash and recycling employees can earn a bit more, it’s hard work—made harder by the pandemic.

American Disposal Services is based in Manassas, Riedel noted, and employees have to start work at 6:30 a.m. having inspected trucks and donned their gear. For some, that might mean arriving by 5:00 a.m. “if not earlier,” because it takes an hour with traffic to get to Arlington, he added.

Depending on whether their crew is collecting trash, recycling or organics, their routes may not be completed until 5:00 p.m., which means that driving back to Manassas and “clocking out is a 12-hour day” before they “get home and do it over the next day.” Consider also that it’s hot in summer and cold in winter, requiring thick clothing boots and gloves. Some suffer heat exhaustion.

Do the math, Riedel said: Arlington’s routes comprise 33,200 customers a week, which adds up to 100,000 carts to be serviced by 15 crews (two or three per truck); that’s 30 workers emptying 18,000 carts per day. Given “the scale and amount of time on the road, it’s a very hard job.”

The crew work a five-day week and all holidays except Christmas, New Year’s Day and Thanksgiving. To give them other holidays, like President’s Day, would simply push collections a day later, the official said. (That happens occasionally when trucks are full, and residents are alerted.) Federal law prevents working seven consecutive days, but managers try to give “adequate time off, overtime, and adjusted schedules “not to appear uncaring,” Riedel said. Training includes commercial driving protocols as well as Arlington’s stricter standards for separating materials, plus policies on accepting large, improperly bunded or dangerous objects—enforced by an inspector with punishments for noncompliance.

In recent years, American Disposal “did have some staffing troubles, which we publicized,” Riedel said. “They were aggressive in the fall and brought in people with a new wages and benefits package, so they’re now fully staffed.” The county’s seven-year contract with ADS was signed in 2015 with two renewal options, and was just renewed until June 2024.   

Overall, largely because of traffic fatalities, waste disposal crews perform the country’s second-most dangerous job, after coal mining, he said. Increasingly, female workers are making their way in the field, Riedel added. But overall, “it’s a young man’s game, pretty intense.”