Garbage: The Whole Story

There has been a lot of coverage about New Orleans’ garbage issue over the past few months. There have been detailed daily accounts of missed pick-ups, the health hazard that this situation – a massive residential garbage pile up – creates, the impact of Covid, the impact of Ida, and speculation about specific sanitation contractors’ role in and responsibility for this crisis.

The City Council has convened multiple meetings to ensure that voters are aware that the Sanitation companies are on the hot seat during an election cycle. One company in particular has been the central focus of citizens’ and politicians’ ire.

What there hasn’t been a lot of is serious analysis of how we got into this situation, nor soul searching to ensure that we never find ourselves here again.
New Orleans is a special city, as we all know. Our inability to provide citizens with something as simple as regular garbage pick-up is simply unacceptable.
Let’s look at the facts.

There are 3 sanitation zones or areas in New Orleans. There are 3 sanitation contractors. The number of households per zone ranges from approximately 4,000 in the French Quarter to 72,017 in Area 2 (New Orleans East, Gentilly, the Lower 9th Ward, and Lakeview) and approximately 74,574 households in Area 1 (Uptown, Hollygrove, Mid-City, and Algiers).

The contractors with the largest number of households are Richards Disposal (Area 1) and Metro Service Group (Area 2). They are paid lower rates than other contractors in surrounding parishes. In Metro’s case, the per household rate ($13.60 for twice per week waste collection and once per week recycling collection) is the lowest not only in the City, but in the region. Both companies are also Black owned. Metro and Richards have been a source of pride for the community as a whole, with excellent approval ratings prior to the pandemic, and a source of pride for the Black community, as there are too few prime Black owned City contractors, and ownership of both companies have been active in and generous to our community for decades.

Both Metro and Richards’ contracts were inked under a prior administration, and the City – then and now – has taken a hard line on ambiguities that the 7 year contracts are riddled with. The most punitive of these ambiguities results in a total of 10,610 households that are serviced (4,874 by Richard’s and 5,736 by Metro) but for which neither Metro nor Richard’s receives any compensation from the City.

We as citizens pay $24 per month to have our garbage collected. Until recently, that has meant twice weekly garbage and once weekly recycling. Of this $24, Metro gets $13.60 and Richards gets $13.75. Which means that the City keeps $10.40 in Metro’s area and $10.25 in Richards’ area. Using numbers relative to the Metro contract, they are not paid the $78,009.60 per month, or $936,115.20 per year for the locations that they are servicing but for which the City is not paying them. Add in the number for Richards ($67,017.50 per month or $$804,210 per year), and the City is keeping over $1.7 Million per year of the monies paid by citizens for trash collection for over 10,000 homes. In fact, for those homes, the City keeps the entire $24 per month, which would equal over $2.8 Million since they don’t pay any of the money to the contractors. Even with the payment of the disposal fees to the Landfill owner, the City is keeping a large portion of the sanitation fee and not paying any portion of it to the people actually doing the hard work of collecting garbage for over 10,000 homes.

This discrepancy – households serviced but not paid for – exists only for the Black owned contractors.

The nation is experiencing a severe, well documented worker shortage. New Orleans is not alone in this problem. Three of the four local sanitation contractors teamed up early in the pandemic to assist one another in staying on track. Metro, which has experienced the most issues, was well into the pandemic before they needed help and, by then, other companies were able to offer little in the way of extra trucks, drivers and hoppers.

Metro has consistently paid its workers at least the living wage – $11.13 – per its City contract, despite the very low margins in their low bid contract. Today, hoppers are paid $13/hour and can make overtime ($19.50/hour) after 40 hours. Drivers make $17 per hour to start and $25.50 in overtime.

Earlier this year, Metro was hobbled by a widely publicized strike by a handful of “hoppers” (workers who ride the back of the trucks and empty the carts) mobilized by a national group that effectively spread misinformation about Metro. While Metro provided ample PPE at the outset of the pandemic, this group convinced most local media outlets that PPE was not made available, and also that rates being paid to workers by Metro were far below the actual rates being paid. This issue culminated with a march on Metro owner Jimmie Woods’ house in Gentilly by a predominantly white crowd brought in from around the country. There was no march on St. Charles Avenue or the French Quarter, where the white sanitation contractors live. When Vice television reported on the march, Woods said it felt like a lynching.

While Richards has had some success with assistance from local competitors, it has been harder for Metro. The trucks and personnel that Metro has been able to get from other local companies have, in many cases, come at a cost higher than the per household rate that Metro gets paid by the City. Metro has come out of pocket in its efforts to catch up with the huge volumes of garbage, both following stay home orders for the global pandemic and thousands of tons of additional garbage after Hurricane Ida.

The much touted $20 Million emergency garbage collection contracts that went into effect with Ceres Environmental, Witt O’Briens, Waste Management, and River Birch this week were not activated for weeks after the hurricane. Why did City Hall take so long to implement these contracts, leaving mountains of garbage on City streets? Did anyone actually expect the normal contractors to be able to pick up the thousands of tons of additional garbage without additional equipment or compensation?

If we are to focus on solutions, it should start with paying the contractors a fair portion of the $24 monthly sanitation fee for all of the homes that they service. Keeping the transfer station open permanently would also help to ensure that the process is more efficient. Having contracts lined up for additional trucks and labor to pick up garbage after a hurricane is essential. Blaming the local, black owned contractors for not doing the impossible is not an acceptable response to a pandemic or a major hurricane.

Something to contemplate: what would have happened had the existing local, minority owned contractors been offered the opportunity to make half of what was ultimately contracted to these four companies to pick up post storm residential waste, with the same time to prepare and procure additional equipment and staff?
It’s not just the garbage that stinks. Let’s start soul searching.

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