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A Timeline Of When And How New Orleans' Garbage Collection Service Issues Began

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Ryan Nelsen
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Trash pickup in New Orleans has been sporadic since Hurricane Ida, and in some cases, well before the storm's landfall.

It’s been more than three weeks since some New Orleanians have had their rotting trash taken away after the region took a beating from Category 4 Hurricane Ida. For others, spotty service has predated the catastrophic storm.

The piles of garbage across the city have frustrated residents to the point of social media complaints, a protest, and in one case, a 59-year-old man, Daniel P. Jenkins, jailed Sunday after threatening to shoot Mayor LaToya Cantrell during a 911 call over his uncollected trash.

Though exacerbated by the storm, the garbage pickup problems were foul long before Ida. Labor issues and a lack of accountability from the city’s contractors have both played a role in inconsistent trash services in New Orleans. Mayors in New Orleans are responsible for signing trash collecting services and holding them accountable, which many frustrated residents are calling for Cantrell to do.

When exactly did New Orleans’ garbage collection take a turn for the smelly? Here’s a timeline.

April 14, 2006

A landfill opened in New Orleans East several months after Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in 2005 and in the same year that then-Mayor Ray Nagin awarded Metro and Richards a $27 million contract to collect the city’s trash.

The decision to rezone the East for the purpose of the landfill, built to hold the vast amounts of debris left by the storm, was surrounded by controversy. Residents in New Orleans East protested the new landfill and wanted the materials going into the landfill tested for harmful toxins.

While Nagin campaigned hard for the new landfill, his mind changed about the location shortly before the 2006 run-off election with Mitch Landrieu. Reporting by NOLA.com shows that Nagin received five $5,000 contributions from companies linked to the River Birch landfill in Avondale.

He eventually refused to sign the New Orleans East site's zoning waiver, killing the landfill he had championed just months before.

Currently, New Orleans is only using the River Birch landfill, which causes delays for trucks collecting trash from the city’s east side. Metro says their trucks can sometimes take up to three hours to complete their drop-offs to the Avondale location.

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Ryan Nelsen/WWNO
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October 21, 2016

During Mayor Mitch Landrieu's second term, he signed the city up for an extension with Richards and Metro for seven more years, which are the contracts they are still currently under. The deals saved the city and taxpayers $4 million in their first year and $5.5 million every year after, according to NOLA.com.

Prior to the contract, the city was paying $27 million annually for the service. Households could now expect to pay $13.75 a month if they lived in Richards territory or $13.60 in Metros.

"I think it's a great success, and it's a testament that open contracting, open bidding, being able to get contracts based on what you know and not who you know, is really the way to go," said Former Mayor Landrieu.

A part of the contract said that both service companies would have to adhere to the "Living Wage Law" that the City Council passed the year before that stated every contract worker from the city be paid at least $10.55 and increase every year to match inflation.

July 12, 2017

A federal labor case was filed by sanitation workers against Metro in 2017 for paying employees under minimum wage and refusing to pay workers overtime. In some cases, employees waited for years to receive their overtime wages.

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Ryan Nelsen/WWNO
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The federal labor case was settled when Metro’s CEO Jimmie Woods paid around $411,000 to more than 100 workers in a court-approved settlement. After $100,000 in attorney fees, workers received payments ranging from a few dollars to more than $15,000.

May 5, 2020

Deemed essential, hoppers and drivers continued to collect trash as the nation locked down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

But in early May, 26 hoppers refused to work for Metro. The strike began with a list of demands that included a wage raise to $15 an hour, $150 a week for hazard pay during the pandemic and that Metro provide protective equipment against the virus.

The strikers formed City Waste Union and even marched and protested in front of Woods’ mansion.

The strikers detailed their work life through local and national media outlets. They described work weeks of 70 to 80 hours. Hydraulic fluid from damaged trucks would leak onto their skin, and the company did not provide uniforms or gloves. New hires were only paid $10.25 an hour, below the city's Living Wage Law.

Metro was able to skirt around some ordinances by subcontracting labor through a Washington state-based company PeopleReady.

The strike affected trash collections for the city. At its peak, the city received over 120 complaint calls in a day for missed trash pickups.

To complete their subcontract with Metro, PeopleReady contracted Lock5, LLC to provide prison laborers to complete the routes for Metro. The prisoners were paid $9.25 an hour with 64% of their wages docked by Lock5, eventually earning $1.33 an hour.

When the manager of Lock5 learned of the strike, he took his workers off the job.

Some striking hoppers returned to their job, but the service in areas of the city remained sporadic.

July 9, 2021

Due to a large number of complaints, City Councilmember Jared Brossett introduced a measure to waive all resident fees for Metro's services for August.

A rebuttal from Cantrell came shortly after, calling the move ill-advised because the city's finances would take a hit by not receiving more than $3 million from the measure. Residents now pay $24 a month for Metro's services, but Brossett says he has received calls from residents going two weeks without receiving pickups from Metro.

In a statement, Woods assured the city that pickups would be back on schedule by July 31. He also said Metro raised their pay by 8% to $15.50 per hour for drivers and plans to raise it again to $17 per hour. However, he said, they are having trouble finding qualified drivers.

August 27, 2021

Just two days before Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans as a Category 4 hurricane, Cantrell assured citizens that the city was "absolutely prepared for active trash collections."

In the aftermath of Ida, the city hasn't received a significant offer to their emergency contracts that would aid Metro in collections — only Richards was able to get a helping hand from another contract. Residents who went a week or more without power emptied their refrigerators into their cans, where it festered in the Summer heat.

Post-storm, Cantrell moved city workers off tasks like mowing public spaces and clearing catch basins to start cleaning crews that sweep through neighborhoods collecting bagged trash. The administration has also allowed residents to dispose of their own trash at the Elysian Fields Transfer Station.

The main problem, according to both Cantrell’s administration and Metro, is that there are simply not enough workers to complete the job.

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