City, union hammer out trash pickup solutions during hours-long meeting

Residents from communities around Oahu have dealt with a stinky problem as trash bins were not picked up as scheduled.

On Thursday, the issue got the attention of the union representing trash workers and the city.

When we first started asking questions about missed pickups a month ago, the city told us staffing was the problem and said it needed to hire more drivers.

But on Wednesday, the city confirmed it recently issued a reminder about weight rules, and drivers tell us that reminder makes it harder to finish a route in a day.

A nearly two-hour meeting between the union and the city was held Thursday in response to those delayed pickups.

United Public Workers state director told Always Investigating he asked for the meeting, and said the new weight reminders were responsible for the pickup problems.

Now both the city and the union say they’re committed to making sure the delays stop.

Back on Nov. 5, the city issued a memo to trash workers telling them the department was aware that some drivers were overloading their vehicles to reduce the number of trips to disposal facilities. What followed was a new internal cap on allowed load weight before they have to make a dump run.

The city says they set that limit, about 17,000 pounds, several years ago, but acknowledged Thursday they only started cracking down a month ago.

“There is no doubt that when this adjustment to a weight standard was imposed and not really having gone in the past created some alarm among some of the members,” said UPW state director Dayton Nakanelua.

That resulted in some bins being left behind as drivers said the extra stops to dump lighter loads caused delays.

When Always Investigating asked if it was an intentional work slowdown, both sides responded with an adamant “no.”

Drivers, however, say the trucks can and have accommodated far more like 20,000 or 22,000 pounds of trash without breaking the law. They say they feel their limits are being set arbitrarily too low to stretch out the hours they have to work in a day.

Tim Houghton with the Department of Environmental Services disagreed. “It’s too high. We’d like them to be at a lower weight for safety in the community,” he said.

After Thursday’s long meeting, both the union and the city said too-heavy loads cause safety problems on the roads, and increase the wear-and-tear damage.

They agreed to just work around it and somehow get all the trash picked up in a regular day’s work.

“Will we have steady trash pickup from here on out, especially over the holidays?” Always Investigating asked.

“We just want to assure the public, these core services, we know they’re core. They’re important. They’re critical,” said Nakanelua. “Given the shortage that we have with staff coupled with the implementation of this new weight standard, it has caused some burden and some stress on the operation. The commitment though, not only from the city and the union, is that core service that the public expects, that we’re going to deliver it.”

“That certainly is our goal. That is our purpose in being and our staff, the employees that do this, want to be out there, want to be out there collecting that trash and taking care of the customers,” said Houghton. “I don’t want to say that every day it’s going to be perfect, but should we have backup like we did over the past month? No, that should not be a routine activity.”

So where do we go from here?

The city and union say they’ll work to remind drivers to call for help if they think they’re running behind on a route. They say they can send a help truck for backup.

But the real fix will come early next year when the city implements a new route optimization software, and redistributes trash routes in a way that will add about 10 new routes. They’re hiring for that, plus for a few existing vacancies. Their trash collector head count is a handful short of where it was this time last year.

“It’s amazing how two or three people short in a yard makes a difference, because you can’t necessarily get a route done and now you’re doing it on overtime,” Houghton said.

The city says if your neighborhood is affected by a new route, you’ll get a notice in advance, because it may change your trash day.

The city also wants to add technology to more trucks so drivers will know before they dump how much their load weighs.

We checked court citation records to see how many city trucks were ticketed for being overweight. In 2012, there was one. The same thing happened in 2014. So far this year, there have been seven.

We also found out it’s not just city trucks getting cited. There have been 664 citations issued on Oahu this year for overweight trucks.

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