INVESTIGATES: Yard waste collection expected to skyrocket, Jacksonville leaders talk challenges

Haulers call this time of year ‘March Madness.’

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Your curb is about to become a very busy spot. It’s the time of year to get outside and get your hands dirty doing yard work and all that waste has to get picked up. That also means waste haulers are staffing up to meet demand. The city says its contractors are in better shape and able to resume curbside pickup of recycling. Meanwhile, a nationwide labor crisis continues.

Haulers call this time of year ‘March Madness.’ For many that rem conjures three-pointers and rebounds, but for Bill Brinkley, the General Manager of Republic Services, it means a very busy season. “That’s when the azaleas start blooming,” he says, “and folks start working in their yards and tree limbs and bushes and clippings get put out on the curb, and yard waste collection skyrockets.”

So while many will be filling out brackets, Brinkley hopes you’ll be filling out a job application and preparing for a very busy several months. The problem is, haulers have been in a labor crunch for a year- and while they say they are in a good spot now, the season’s uptick in demand may wreak havoc.

Action News Jax Investigator Emily Turner talked to the city’s Chief Administration Officer, Brian Hughes, about the trouble finding workers. He says, “over the course of the year, since 2017, the labor pool has shrunk. Economics is better, so there’s been a lot of pull- not simply of drivers- but of all roles in solid waste into other industries.” So we asked how the city plans to handle that moving into the busiest time of year for yard waste. Hughes didn’t give specifics, simply saying, “well, those are the challenges we face.”

The city sent its contract with Republic back out to bid last year after too many issues and missed pickups, but the company still serves northern St. Johns County. In our January interview with the General Manager, Brinkley, says they need up to a dozen additional workers during the warmer months to make sure they make all their pick-ups.

So two months before the busy season, we asked if he was already staffing up. “Oh yes,” Brinkley said, “we are onboarding helpers now.”

Brinkley says the amount of yard waste is set to almost double, jumping 44% between February and May. In the city of Jacksonville, that all gets picked up by people- not automated trucks. They work rain or shine in 90 degree heat and get paid less than $20/hour.

So as we head into what will likely literally be ‘March Madness’ for haulers, what does that mean for the ratepayer? Well, January and February are considered the slow month in the industry and the number of missed pickups was still in the hundreds- not including the suspended recycling pickups that haven’t been happening. So, many worry the return to recycling will be a bumpy road, with a curbside littered with even more late pickups.