Sanitation industry short-staffed, looking to automated trucks to solve the issue

SMYRNA, Ga. — Public works departments, including sanitation, are among several industries impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the “great resignation.”

Channel 2 Action News spent the day alongside workers in Smyrna along their trash route. Channel 2′s Jorge Estevez put on a yellow vest and jumped on the back of a truck to get a firsthand look at the challenges presented by staffing shortages.

As of April, the city of Smyrna was down 30 positions. Eric Randall, city engineer and interim director, said it has been a difficult time.

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“It’s been difficult to bring people in. It’s especially difficult to find someone for a job like a sanitation worker,” Randall said

On the back of the garbage truck, long-time employee Shane Harpe told us he first worked in sanitation as a teenager and came back because of the environment.

“It’s not the money to me. I work for someone that will treat men better, you know what I mean? That’s what I like about it,” Harpe said.

Randall said the pay begins at $16 an hour with a raise after three months. Employees get paid for an eight-hour day, regardless of how long it takes to complete the route. There is also a pension plan, something many employers no longer offer.

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High employee turnover leads to higher costs, not only with training, but also in maintenance. Harpe told us newer workers tend to make more mistakes, which leads to crushed cans or other broken equipment.

One solution to this problem is automation. Many companies or municipalities are turning to trash trucks with automated arms. Channel 2 Action News rode behind a team of workers in DeKalb County and saw the county’s automated trucks working.

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The robotic arm picks up the trash cans, leaving little room for error and no need for employees to ride on the back of the truck. The job can be done with a solo driver.

Although automation fills positions and improves efficiency, Randall told us nothing replaces the human element.

“It’s up to us to see that this is an industry that people want to work in to generate the culture. People are our greatest strength; lack of people is one of our greatest weaknesses.”

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