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by Ian Round and Mark Reutter11:33 amNov 9, 20200

Facing a garbage pileup, Young administration ups the pay of sanitation workers

Councilmen Yitzy Schleifer and Zeke Cohen campaigned for higher wages, while the Young administration faced pressure to clean up the streets and alleys

Above: A Baltimore garbage truck rolls through a very clean and green neighborhood in this DPW photo.

Some of Baltimore’s lowest-paid public workers are getting a raise to keep them on the job collecting the city’s trash.

The Department of Public Works is creating 30 new full-time positions for temporary garbage workers, entitling them to a pay increase from $11 to more than $16 an hour, plus healthcare benefits.

Meanwhile, the starting salary for DPW garbage truck drivers will be raised from $38,805 to $42,607 a year.

In addition, all sanitation workers and drivers at DPW will receive a $500 bonus. The one-time payment will cover about 285 employees.

“Step in the right direction”

The changes are aimed at a common goal – to retain workers who are currently struggling to keep garbage off the streets and out of the alleys.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Taurus Barksdale, an Eastside community leader who knows many DPW workers and coordinates neighborhood cleanups. “Guys are now going to start showing up for work.”

Westport leader Keisha Allen said trash pick-ups have been taking place on time, but DPW needs to do more to make sure there is less garbage in public spaces in her South Baltimore neighborhood.

In areas of her community where people don’t have trash cans, residents are leaving bags of garbage on street corners, she said.

“Why is DPW not contacting a street or area where this is a problem – owner-occupied and non-owner-occupied – sending letters or postcards and warning them they must have a trash can and use it?” Allen asked. “And then if people are still doing this, bringing them in individually – enforcing this?”

She continued, “It can’t just be community leaders like me that have to go to Staples and print out fliers. If this was Roland Park or Bolton Hill, they would somehow make [the littering] stop.”

A teenager bikes past a discarded mattress and garbage behind the Enoch Pratt Library's Brooklyn Branch. (J.M. Giordano)

Even before the pandemic, Baltimore alleys left much to be desired. A teenager bikes past a graffiti-marked mattress and piles of garbage next a “No Dumping” sign at the Brooklyn branch of the Enoch Pratt Library. (J.M. Giordano)

Recycling Suspended

Baltimore is one of many cities facing a shortage of garbage workers as trash accumulates because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

DPW stopped collecting curbside recycling last August, reducing trash collection from twice to once a week, even as household waste has increased with more people staying home because of the virus.

In Westport, according to Allen, those who have cars are taking recycling to the Cherry Hill sanitation yard, but others are simply putting recyclable material into the regular trash, despite knowing the impact on the environment.

“I don’t blame them for that, it’s a bad situation,” she said.

Over the summer, DPW said it would hire private contractors to help with garbage collection. Recycling pickups were scheduled to resume on November 1, but have since been pushed back to December 15.

A sanitation crew makes the rounds in East Baltimore in 2015. (Mark Reutter)

A sanitation crew makes the rounds in East Baltimore in 2015. (Mark Reutter)

The Politics of Pay

Councilmen Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer and Zeke Cohen proposed solving the worker shortage by securing more money for “essential” DPW employees rather than paying more to private companies.

Their efforts were resisted by Councilman Eric Costello. The chair of the Council’s Budget and Appropriations Committee contended that paying more to some employees when the city was scrapped for money was improper.

“Raising the idea of bonuses for one set of our incredible agency staff while neglecting to recognize the bravery and sacrifice of other departments is insulting to those departments,” Costello wrote in a newspaper oped last month, adding:

“I will not insult our employees or residents with wishful thinking or disingenuous advocacy.”

Without any advance notice, Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young steered the bonus and full-time job measures through the Board of Estimates last week.

A member of his staff said Young had been planning to “address” DPW’s solid waste pay scales all along.

Two councilmen push for raises for DPW garbage workers (10/7/2020)

Positions created for incoming Council president trigger controversy and threats (11/26/20)

“I’m grateful to Mayor Young for making the right decision,” Cohen told The Brew. “But the people I’m most grateful to are the sanitation workers themselves. It became increasingly clear that $11 an hour was not only unacceptable, but also insulting.”

The city’s budget office estimates the permanent jobs and raises for drivers will cost $2.1 million and the one-time bonus $143,000.

That compares to the $715,000 price tag for nine new positions that Young recently pushed through the spending board on behalf of City Council President-elect Nick Mosby.

Councilmen Zeke Cohen and Yitzy Schleifer push for higher wages for

Councilmen Zeke Cohen and Yitzy Schleifer call for higher wages for garbage workers at a news conference last month. (Ian Round)

Better Morale

Schleifer says the increased pay will mean fewer workers will quit and workplace morale will improve. He expects that to translate to less trash in alleys and streets.

“They were being severely underpaid and we were feeling the effects,” Schleifer said. “Our retention is going to be better because these workers are going to stick around longer, so we’re going to have more consistency, and they’re going to perform at a high level.”

Schleifer said the mayor gave workers the majority of what he was asking for. He said he wished that full-time garbage workers, whose pay starts at $35,000, got a raise along with the bonus.

Cohen, meanwhile, noted that the vast majority of the workers live in the city.

“When we pay people a just, decent salary, we are contributing back to our own tax base,” he said.

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