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Trash is still piling up despite St. Louis hiring bonuses

Once a month, St. Louisans are allowed to leave old furniture on the curb or by dumpsters for pick up – a service that is included in residents' quarterly solid waste fee . The fee is $14 a month per household.
Britny Cordera
St. Louis Public Radio
Once a month, St. Louisans are allowed to leave old furniture on the curb or by dumpsters for pickup — a service that is included in residents' quarterly solid waste fee.

Residents of St. Louis have been complaining about trash troubles for years. The issue peaked in June 2022 when the city received more than 3,250 complaints of overflowing trash containers. Some residents went weeks without seeing a city Refuse Division truck during the summer.

This year, the city’s Refuse Division is still having issues picking up trash on time, especially bulk waste like old dressers or beds, even after the mayor lifted a hiring freezepost pandemic.

The city raised pay for all St. Louis employees across the board by 3% with a $2,000 retention bonus for current employees. The mayor also put the city’s trash commissioner, Todd Waelterman, on leave last year.

Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, said that still doesn’t seem to be enough. Residents are frustrated by the lack of consistent solid and bulk waste pickup, said Vaccaro, who sits on the Streets, Traffic and Refuse Committee.

“Refuse is still a problem, I still get a lot of complaints about trash not being picked up, regular trash being mixed in with recycling,” he said.

Once a month, St. Louisans are allowed to leave old furniture on the curb or by dumpsters for pickup — a service included in residents' quarterly solid waste fee. The fee is $14 a month per household.

It can sometimes take up to a week for heavy equipment operators to pick up furniture, but now, the city is weeks behind on picking up those discarded items, said Vaccaro.

“People are putting stuff out like couches and mattresses on the day they're supposed to,” he said. “But if they're running two to three weeks behind, which they are, it just looks really trashy.”

The Refuse Division had 52 heavy equipment operators in 2022, according to the city. As of now, the city has 46 operators.

Garbage scattered all over a vacant yard in St. Louis' Dutchtown neighborhood
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

Vaccaro said the city is struggling to hire Refuse Division workers because, in spite of the city worker pay raise, the department still does not pay enough.

“When we're paying $16 or even $18 an hour for someone to drive a trash truck. And yet, companies are paying $30 and $40 an hour. You just can't compete,” he said.

Refuse workers are also faced with trucks breaking down. According to a local news story last year, more than 40 trucks needed maintenance and were inoperable. The city addressed this issue by bringing on an extra shift of mechanics last month.

City officials said heavy equipment operators work overtime on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays to collect trash on routes missed during the week. Workers aren’t able to make all of their weekly routes without 50 workers and 50 trucks.

With $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, the city is training 75 income-qualified people for free to get ar commercial driver's license, which is required to become a Refuse Division worker. The city is hopeful this will bring in more heavy equipment operators.

“We play a huge part in being able to provide those training opportunities, and Refuse is one of those departments that we hope to funnel those individuals into,” said Fredricka McGlown, director of the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment.

But Vaccaro questions whether this is enough to address St. Louis’ trash problem. Refuse workers do the best they can given the circumstances, he said, but suggested the city either needs to pay its workers more or come up with better solutions.

“People want service that they can rely on. Maybe the city needs to think outside the box like having recycling centers or outsourcing bulk pickup,” he said.

Britny Cordera is a poet and journalist based in St. Louis and is currently serving as a newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio.