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The Investigators: City can’t answer questions about Solid Waste workforce absences, recycling issues

Mayor Strickland’s Office has said 25% of the workforce has been absent because of COVID-19
Updated: Jan. 28, 2021 at 9:15 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Recyclables in Memphis have been thrown away with household trash for weeks now.

The City of Memphis says so many of their solid waste employees have been infected with or exposed to COVID-19, there aren’t enough workers each day to separately pick up both trash and recycling.

However, Memphians have been sending us videos that show their recyclables being dumped with household trash since May.

City Spokesperson Arlenia Cole told us last summer, “If garbage crews find that recycle carts are comingled with trash, they will dump those carts in with your regular garbage”.

But within months, every recycle cart was being dumped with regular garbage.

After numerous citizen complaints, and questions from WMC Action News 5, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s Office sent out a statement on December 4 saying, “approximately 25% of our solid waste crews have contracted the COVID-19 virus or are in quarantine, which has impacted service”.

The statement said the absences would continue to impact service “until further notice”.

Nearly six weeks later, when we asked for an update, the City told The Investigators that the statement “continues to stand”.

We wanted to know how many solid waste employees are out sick or in quarantine so we asked the City for the number of COVID-19 cases within the Solid Waste department.

The City spokesperson responded via email that a list of all city employees is on the website and “you may access the list and calculate the 25% of solid waste crews, drivers and heavy equipment operators.”

The only list we could find was a salary list from last September.

We identified 504 Solid Waste employees. 25% percent of that workforce is 126.

According to the City’s statement, that would mean 126 employees have been absent every day for nearly two months.

We asked the City to confirm that number but they did not answer our question.

We then asked the Shelby County Health Department if contact tracing was done to see if Solid Waste employees are getting sick on the job.

A Health Department spokesperson wrote in an email, “There was a cluster identified 12/2/20 with the City of Memphis Solid Waste Management.

“There were 2 workers who tested positive and they were identified as close contacts to each other as they worked closely together. This cluster has closed and no additional cases have been reported.”

With the numbers not seeming to add up, The Investigators contacted members of City Council’s Solid Waste Committee to see if they had more definitive answers.

Councilman Worth Morgan said he didn’t have the answers but brought up the issue in Tuesday’s Personnel Committee meeting.

The City’s Chief Financial Officer, Shirley Ford, told Morgan that she, too, couldn’t get an answer from Solid Waste.

“We are having some reporting issues between our Solid Waste and our Office of Performance Management. Those numbers haven’t been solidified yet so we’ll have to follow up with those for you in an after report,” Ford said.

That got the attention of Councilman Chase Carlisle.

“For me, it’s a little disturbing that I can’t ask you how many people showed up to work on Wednesday, January 25th and you wouldn’t be able to pull that report out of your queue within minutes, to be frankly honest,” Councilman Carlisle said.

We requested an interview through the City’s press office with Albert Lamar, Director of the Solid Waste Division, but the request was denied within three minutes.

Meanwhile, our questions remain unanswered: How many sanitation workers are currently absent because of COVID-19, and when we can expect recyclables to actually be recycled?

Memphis raised Solid Waste fees by more than $7 December 2019, just before the pandemic began.

The Solid Waste Division also received $4 million in CARES Act money to pay for overtime.

The Investigators also reached out numerous times to the Solid Waste union, AFSCME Director Gail Tyree, but did not receive a response.

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