Houston is producing more garbage, but there are fewer sanitation workers to do the job

Here’s how the city and other garbage companies are filling employee gaps, despite a national shortage.

HOUSTON – It is a common neighborhood complaint in Houston: Garbage bins being left piled high on the curb, after being missed on pickup day.

Now, the city of Houston and other garbage pickup companies are working to make up those delays, but it’s been tough to lure folks to do these “dirty” jobs.

“Solid waste management is a competitive business,” said Mark Wilfalk, director of Houston Solid Waste Management. “We’re not the only ones who (provide) waste hauling in the city of Houston.”

Wilfalk said solid waste services have been greatly impacted by the national driver shortage.

Right now, the city has 318 active critical employees, but still need to fill at least 50 vacancies. This means there are not enough people to get all of the jobs done on time.

“It means that at times, at certain times throughout the week, services might get compromised,” Wilfalk said. “It’s not that it won’t be provided, but it may not be as scheduled.”

The demand for garbage truck drivers and side-loader operators is so competitive that the city of Houston is offering a $3,000 bonus, which is paid out over time, for new hires who stay on the job.

City of Houston is looking at ways to be more competitive and retain workers. (KPRC-TV)

Garbage truck driver jobs with the city appear to start between $16.89 and $19.15, depending on experience and qualifications.

Wilfalk reminds applicants that part of the attraction to this kind of municipal job is stability and flexibility.

“The work schedule that we have is, typically, our drivers are off on Wednesdays -- the middle of the week,” Wilfalk said. “And if everything is going well, we’re off on the weekends, too. So, you actually have time with your family. And that’s what I always encourage people to evaluate.”

City of Houston Sanitation Jobs

What’s driving the garbage truck driver market?

Federal law requires garbage pickups in every state. Right now, the challenge in fulfilling that requirement comes down to hiring and retaining workers.

“The city is growing more, day by day,” said C’ne Stanberry-Roberts, a garbage truck operator. “As the city grows, we’re not getting the manpower (and) the personnel that we need.”

The reason, said Jimmie Munk, with Alvin Community College, is garbage truck drivers are getting paid more to become road truck drivers.

The jump to become a semi-truck driver requires a different license, but Munk said, “The money is all over the road.”

“It’s definitely an employee’s market right now,” said Matthew May, owner of Best Trash, a residential trash and recycling company.

‘It’s an employee’s market’: The struggle to fill dirty jobs

Companies like Best Trash have had to adapt in order to recruit and retain workers.

May said they’re using insurance and even created an employee loan program to make the business more competitive.

“At any time, we probably have $50,000 to $70,000 out for employee loans,” May said.

Other residential companies have offered up signing bonuses. May said he has seen signs advertising $8,000 retention bonuses.

The city of Houston is also offering $3,000 signing bonuses for new hires, and also offers three days off, as long as everything is covered.

Best Trash, a private residential garbage and recycling company, has also struggled to hire and retain workers. (KPRC-TV)

Despite the up-front benefits, the city’s starting pay is not competitive compared to others in the industry.

Houston is conducting a market study of the industry to see how they can become even more competitive to hire and retain employees.

The city’s starting pay is around $20, but Wilfalk said other employers’ pay starts in the mid-$20s.

Despite the wage gap, Wilfalk believes the city’s plan for additional benefits and a bump in starting pay will make the difference.

As of February 2022, the national pay average for employees in the refuse and recyclables industry is $27.55, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Watch: The states that pay solid waste workers the most

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