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Cohen, Schleifer Call On Young To Resume Curbside Recycling, Raise DPW Workers’ Wages

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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Two city councilmen are calling on Mayor Jack Young to resume Baltimore’s curbside recycling service and raise the pay of the Department of Public Works’ sanitation employees, some of whom earn $11 an hour.

“The way we pay people communicates how we value them,” Councilman Zeke Cohen, a Democrat, said during a Wednesday news conference at the Sisson Street Sanitation Yard in Northwest Baltimore. “Right now we are sending a clear message that we do not value these employees.”

Permanent crew workers’ wages start at $16 an hour, while temporary crew workers earn $11 an hour. Cohen and Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer said each wage should be bumped by at least $4 an hour..

The public works department suspended curbside recycling services over the summer, citing the challenges of operating during the coronavirus pandemic, and announced Tuesday that those services would not resume in November as agency officials had hoped. Matthew Garbark, acting director of DPW, chalked the delay up to surging positivity rates of the coronavirus.

“Out of an abundance of caution, DPW will not resume curbside recycling collections at this time,” he said in a statement. The agency will provide an update on plans to restart service on Dec.15, he said.

The agency will continue to operate recycling collection centers throughout the city, where residents can bring their recycling materials on their own.

In August, more than a third of DPW’s trash and recycling crews didn’t report to work. DPW’s head of solid waste, John Chalmers, has attributed the shortage of employees to the work’s physical demands and exposure to the elements, coupled with pandemic-related difficulties such as increased trash tonnage as people stay home and the anxiety of potentially being exposed to the virus on the job. 

Schleifer said he recognizes the unprecedented challenges DPW is facing, but argued that the Young administration is using the pandemic as an excuse to kick the can down the road rather than implement real solutions.

“It’s no surprise that turnover is as high as it is and retention is so difficult when you're not paying people a fair wage to do very difficult work,” the Democrat said. 

Young, who lost the Democratic primary to Council President Brandon Scott in June, will be out of City Hall by the time the agency provides its next update.

“This mayor has done a lot during this lame duck period,” Cohen said. “He has made a number of major staffing decisions, including firing the Housing Commissioner in the middle of a pandemic.”

What he hasn’t done, Cohen said, is take action for the Baltimoreans who need it, such as DPW workers and residents sick of watching their trash pile up.

Young took issue with the councilmen’s remarks, saying in a statement his administration gave laborers a 5% wage increase and raised the pay of sanitation workers by nearly 4% last year after conducting a salary study of AFSCME Local 44 workers. 

The study did not examine the wages of temporary workers.

Young, a Democrat, also said his administration has developed a plan to reduce the number of temporary jobs and replace them with full-time positions with benefits.

“If the Councilmembers of the 1st and 5th Districts would seek out information as readily as they seek out news cameras and if they would fight to identify real solutions to the City’s ills as vigorously as they fight for photo ops, we could collaboratively work to solve many more problems for the residents of Baltimore,” Young said in the statement.

Reginald Brown, a 30-year veteran of DPW, works at the Sisson Street Sanitation Yard. He’s spent the last few months helping residents unload recycling from their cars into a large DPW dump truck. The truck fills up by around noon each day, he said. 

“I look forward to coming to work,” Brown said. “It's a little challenging because of the health scare, but I'm grateful to be working.”

All in all, he said, residents have been in good spirits when they unload their recycling.

“This process is real smooth,” Brown said. “They say it's real easy access. So that's a good thing.”

Brown helped Suzanne Fontana, a resident of the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Irvington, unload her recycling on Wednesday afternoon. Fontana agreed that the process is easy, but said she yearns for the “before times” when recycling and trash curbside services made her feel “like civilization is functioning well.”

 

“It always made me really happy,” she said. “I never guessed that we wouldn't have that again. I do really miss it, and I do see it as something not to take for granted anymore.”

 

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