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Costa Mesa trash piles up as COVID-19-related absences hobble local waste haulers

Trash cans overflow with garbage on Tuesday along Columbia Drive in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

COVID-19-related staffing shortages in Orange County are reaching a fever pitch as employees across several industries call out sick to self-isolate or quarantine after an exposure. The phenomenon has recently begun impacting trash collection in some areas.

Costa Mesa Sanitary District, which provides waste-hauling services to 25,000 residential customers in Costa Mesa and portions of Newport Beach and unincorporated Orange County, is reporting service delays due to a shortage of truck drivers.

Workers, provided through a contract with California-based waste hauler CR&R, have been increasingly scarce since the winter holiday surge, CMSD spokeswoman Noelani Middenway said Tuesday.

A discarded Christmas tree on Columbia Drive in Costa Mesa Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
A discarded Christmas tree on Columbia Drive in Costa Mesa Tuesday is one sign of long-delayed trash service, thought to be caused by COVID-19-related absences among waste haulers.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“We have had residents call and say their trash has not been collected for a week or two weeks,” she said. “We were told by CR&R they have been hit very hard with the number of drivers who are unavailable due to COVID.”

The hauling company reported some 40 absences last week across five regional truck yards, including three in Orange County, the highest seen so far during the pandemic, according to CR&R Regional Vice President Julie Barreda.

The shortage of workers is being felt across the region, including Los Angeles and Riverside counties, as absences due to cold and flu infections compound the problem.

“We really saw the impact starting two weeks ago among our drivers, but it’s not just drivers, it’s also mechanics and customer service representatives,” Barreda said Tuesday. “And we don’t really have backup for customer service, so unfortunately, customers are seeing longer wait times.”

Despite the rash of absences, most customers are seeing delays of only up to one day, as drivers are asked to come in on their off days or pick up a portion of an absent driver’s route when their own is finished.

But for CMSD customer Jack Lucas, who lives in Costa Mesa’s College Park neighborhood, the disruption of service has lasted much longer.

The homeowner reported Tuesday trash at his home on Hanover Drive hadn’t been picked up since Jan. 5, despite multiple calls to Costa Mesa Sanitary District and CR&R. Now, Christmas trees and holiday wrapping and boxes are piling up.

“Tomorrow will be two weeks,” Lucas said, relaying how neighbors are storing excess trash along the sides of their houses and street sweepers are driving down the middle of the road to avoid the line of cans at the curbs. “They’re falling by the wayside — they aren’t even answering their phones.”

Trash cans overflowing with garbage on Tuesday along Hanover Drive in Costa Mesa.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Middenway encouraged residents to report requests for service on CMSD’s website, where issues are cataloged directly at the district and with CR&R, and bypass overtaxed phone lines. Visitors can go to cmsdca.gov/contact_us/service_requests.php to log an issue or complaint.

Barreda said while delays like the one Lucas is reporting are “atypical,” she advises customers to be patient through the staffing shortage.

“It’s been a struggle,” she added. “[But] hopefully this will pass soon.”

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