Officials looking to limit, avoid transfer station closures attributed to ‘staff shortages’

  • The chute at Keauhou Transfer Station is closed in May amid a staffing shortage. (Courtesy photo/Special to West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — With the closures of three West Hawaii transfer stations Tuesday that sent residents to Waimea and Kailua-Kona to dispose of their rubbish because of staff shortages, local officials say they’d like to see some solutions.

The Keauhou transfer station is expected to open up again at 6 a.m. today, while the stations in Keei (in South Kona) and Puako (in South Kohala) will open Friday morning, their next normal business day.

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Officials said Tuesday they’re looking at what can be done to avoid or limit the closures, but a solution isn’t necessarily as easy as just hiring more people.

“It’s easy to say I just need more people, but it’s more than that. It’s not that simple,” said Bill Kucharski, director of the Department of Environmental Management.

The Department of Environmental Management has roughly 83 workers for all of its 22 transfer stations islandwide, Kucharski said, and there are another 18 or so positions that are either unfunded or unfilled. He said the department is always actively hiring.

If workers call in sick and those not scheduled to work that day don’t want to come in to fill in, Kucharski said, the department can’t operate its transfer stations.

The department can’t require workers to work overtime, and it’s restricted by union rules from bringing outside people to fill in for absences. Kucharski said he doesn’t have a problem with the contract, saying it’s something within which the department has to operate.

Transfer stations on the island have closed a number of times this year as a result of staffing shortages. This past Friday, the Pahala transfer station closed at 9 a.m., redirecting residents down to Waiohinu for the day.

Repeatedly, the county cites “staff shortages” as the reason behind the closures, which force residents to go elsewhere to dispose of their trash.

Councilwoman Maile David, whose district includes Keei, said on a day the Waiea transfer station was closed, she took her rubbish to the one in Keauhou, which is typically open daily, only to find both bins shut. That meant she had to continue another 10 miles north to Kealakehe.

“I have to pass that anyway. I have to pass the Kealakehe transfer station in order to get to work,” said the councilwoman. “So for me that worked. If not, I’d have to be making an extra trip. If I worked, say, in Keauhou Shopping Center, I would have to drive all the way down to Kealakehe transfer station just to get rid of my trash.”

David said that while she didn’t have concrete solutions, she believes that if it’s issues of staffing, the county has to pay attention to what’s causing them.

While having more people might reduce the number of stations that are shut down, Kucharski said, it wouldn’t necessarily guarantee no station would ever be shut down. The solution for limiting them, he said, isn’t as easy as just getting more staff on the roll.

“I can give you a simple answer to say ‘Yes, more people would help,’” he said. “But there are other systemic things that we need to be able to deal with as well.”

He said they are looking at some of those more systemic issues, such as how the department is managing and scheduling the staff it does have and looking at how many people it has on reserve and the process for managing that.

Mayor Harry Kim too said it’s critical to look at how the county responds to being able to fill positions when people aren’t able to come in.

One issue he sees is recruitment, particularly on the west side. Given the cost of housing in the region, he said, it’s not easy to fill positions here.

The mayor said he’s looking at contract review and other ways the county could respond to shortages. One idea he floated involved having people who could be on stand-by in case there are positions that need to be filled for a day.

While he didn’t know if such an idea was feasible, he said Tuesday’s closures were a “great inconvenience” to the people who rely on them.

“And if this happens only once in a year, then you can kind of accept that,” he said. “But you know that’s happened more than that.”

He credited the Department of Environmental Management’s efforts to address the issue, and said the county needs to continue looking at its options.

David too acknowledged that it’s a situation without a clear-cut answer given the different parts involved in the issue, including the collective bargaining process.

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That said, she questioned why the county doesn’t have some kind of back-up, on-call list and have a contingency plan when there’s an overwhelming number of absences.

“And I don’t know how complicated that is to complete,” she said. “But that’s my thinking, because the ultimate bottom line is that when people expect government services, and they have a set schedule, I think we’re responsible in honoring that schedule.”

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