Management, employees differ on solid waste division staffing

  • The Keauhou Transfer Station was closed March 29, pictured here. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Bruce Aipia and Allan Liftee discard green waste in a full bin Monday at the Kealakehe Transfer Station. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — A county employee says abrupt transfer station closures like those experienced last week could pop up again in the future unless the Hawaii County Department of Environmental Management adds to its solid waste division workforce.

On March 29, transfer stations at Keauhou, Keei and Pahala were all shutdown due to what DEM characterized in a press release as an “unanticipated staffing shortage.” It was the third Friday in 2019 one or more transfer stations were closed due to a lack of available staff.

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The department directed residents to dispose of their rubbish at various other sites, saying that transfer stations would reopen as normal over the weekend. But DEM ended up shuttering green waste disposal at the Kealakehe Transfer Station on both Saturday and Sunday, while the Keei Transfer Station didn’t open up again on Sunday as planned.

Frustrated county residents complained to the department and West Hawaii Today, then began floating theories as to why the closures were occurring. A popular theory included the possibility of coordinated sick-outs on the part of solid waste division workers due to tensions with management.

A source who works inside the division, however, discredited those theories.

“That would never happen,” said the source, who asked to remain anonymous. “There’s a shortage. There’s a need for more manpower.”

While seemingly on par with statements made by DEM in releases announcing the closures, the important difference between how management described the shortages leading to closures and how workers on the ground view those shortages is the word “unanticipated.”

A solid waste division source said while the particular day a staff shortage might cause transfer stations to close can be difficult to predict because of several factors, low overall staffing numbers within the division keep closures a possibility.

Michael Kaha, deputy chief of the solid waste division, said on March 29, “I believe that we have the amount of people that we need to be at work.”

But that sentiment is not shared among all his employees. Kaha did not return a call for additional comment on staffing throughout his division by press time Friday.

Hawaii County is home to 23 transfer stations, five baseyards and two landfills, until Hilo’s landfill closes sometime later this year. DEM Director Bill Kucharski said the division employs 41 solid waste facility attendants and 32 drivers.

However, factors like employee turnover, injuries, vacation days and sick leave can affect both general and day-to-day availability.

At least one attendant must be present at a transfer station so that it can open for the day. A lack of drivers can also cause problems because only so much waste is allowed to pile up at each facility before the county is forced to halt dumping there.

“We schedule folks for work to be able to do everything that’s necessary. If folks don’t show up, we can’t operate, and that’s what happened (Friday, March 29),” Kucharski said. “We call additional people to see if they can come in and work overtime. If they don’t answer or choose not to work, we can not force anyone to do overtime.”

A source who works inside the solid waste division said attendants and drivers often work beyond the stipulations of their union contract in order to most adequately serve the public.

The source contended at current staffing levels, however, if even a couple employees use contractually stipulated vacation or sick days that coincide at the wrong time, transfer station closures become a potential issue. According to the source, that’s a sign the division needs more hires.

That unexpected closures happen as infrequently as they do is a testament to how hard employees work, said the source, adding any perception that solid waste division workers take an inordinate number of sick days is misinformed and incorrect.

Mayor Harry Kim has requested 72 new county workers, including 10 for DEM. However, those 10 would all be part of the wastewater division, which will require a greater workforce once upgrades to the Kealakehe Wastewater Treatment Plant are completed and it begins pumping R1 recycled water to various developments, a golf course and the coming Kealakehe Regional Park.

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As such, it appears unlikely more staff will be made available for the solid waste division any time soon. However, Kucharski said DEM is going to try and service Hawaii Island residents with better information when transfer stations are forced to close on short notice.

“We’re going to be instituting a text message system out for folks to let them know if stations are closed,” Kucharski said. “We have to do much better communicating.”

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