COVID, not costs, is driving the closure of county garbage transfer stations, officials said Wednesday.
The county announced late Monday that Hilo, Keaau and Pahoa will be closed Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays while opening Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Hawi and Keauhou will be closed Tuesdays and Thursdays while opening Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
The new hours will be in effect until further notice.
The latest wave in the coronavirus pandemic, this one fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, is affecting transfer station workers, from gate attendants to compactors and haulers, Brenda Iokepa-Moses, deputy director of Environmental Management and acting Solid Waste Division chief, said in an interview Wednesday.
Workers have been calling in sick, either because they don’t feel well, or they’ve been in contact with someone who’s tested positive for the coronavirus. That starts a weeklong process of testing and quarantine before they can come back to work.
“We’re following those appropriate protocols and we’re feeling it,” Iokepa-Moses said.
While the department is always recruiting, it’s not necessarily short-staffed under normal conditions, she said. The county’s planned transfer station closures allow workers to rotate among several stations as they’re opened.
Iokepa-Moses said officials are investigating whether they can use temporary workers to fill in under emergency proclamations from the governor and mayor. Otherwise, union contracts appear to disallow it.
While the county has closed transfer stations before, it’s not usual that urban stations such as Hilo get pulled into the rotation. This time, the department made a conscious effort to spare the most rural stations, which are already on three-day-a-week schedules.
Iokepa-Moses asked for the public to be patient. The workers don’t like the shortened hours any more than they do, she said. Fewer days mean busier days, more work and more frustrated users.
“I would like to express to the public to please be compassionate with the employees,” she said. “They’re doing the best that they can with staffing that we have.”
Environmental Management Director Ramzi Mansour has been vocal about the rising costs to run the transfer stations, especially in light of residents being able to dump there for free. He’s mused about cutting back operating hours, noting people on garbage pickup routes get only one service a week. Attempts to implement a fee for users have so far met with community resistance.
Some of the transfer stations cost $500 per ton to operate, compared to the county’s $116 per ton tipping fee to haulers at the county landfill. About two-thirds of solid waste costs are paid not by users, but come from the general fund, powered primarily by property taxes.