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Facing Serious Staff Shortage, St. Louis Looks To Hire More Trash Truck Drivers

A St. Louis city refuse collector collects an alley container full of recycling.
File photo / Veronique LaCapra
St. Louis Public Radio
A St. Louis city trash truck driver collects an alley container full of recycling. “These guys are working 10-hour days," said St. Louis director of operations Todd Waelterman. "We have a lot of our people working on Saturdays. It's a full day with 40 trucks out there, mopping things up."

Like most cities, St. Louis has a flood of trash that never stops.

Heaps of splintered furniture and slick, bulging garbage bags are shoved into alley dumpsters like clockwork — and occasionally set on fire. But these days, there are barely enough refuse workers to collect it all.

The city’s Refuse Division is facing a severe shortage of trash truck drivers, with nearly a third of the department’s positions open. As homebound residents produce more waste and recycling during the pandemic, workers are scrambling to keep up, often working weekends.

Despite rumors to the contrary, COVID-19 illnesses among workers is not the reason for slower-than-usual trash collection, said Todd Waelterman, director of operations for the city of St. Louis.

The city is budgeted to hire 71 trash truck drivers, but only 50 of those jobs are filled, Waelterman explained. He estimates about 40 drivers show up to work on any given day.

“These guys are working 10-hour days,” he said. “We have a lot of our people working on Saturdays. It's a full day with 40 trucks out there, mopping things up. Our end goal is to have caught up on all our work that we may have missed during the week by Saturday night.”

Currently, the Refuse Division tries to empty all trash bins twice weekly and collect recycling and yard waste once a week.

But during the pandemic, there has been a sharp increase in certain types of waste, including cardboard boxes used for online shipping. “All this extra cardboard, all this extra packing material, everybody's bringing it home and they're giving to us,” Waelterman said.

St. Louis Alderwoman Annie Rice, D-8th Ward, who represents portions of south city, said she has gotten more constituent complaints in recent weeks about overflowing recycling bins.

Though she understands their frustration, Rice said that she has urged constituents to be patient.

“Because so many people are home now, there's more of a burden on refuse in our residential neighborhoods,” she said, adding that staff shortages and increased pandemic waste have created a “perfect storm.”

For his part, Waelterman hopes more people will consider applying to work as refuse drivers, especially given the job does not require applicants to live in the city.

“The majority of issues with refuse are purely staffing,” he said. “We just need more drivers.”

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.