EDITORIAL – Trash collection: A dirty job that must be done

No offense to readers who toil away in C-suites or corner offices, but there are many types of jobs where occasional, extended or even habitual absenteeism might never be noticed.

Garbage collection is not among those professions.

When solid waste staffers miss a day or two – or 835, which was the number of sick days taken by Cayman’s roadside crews last year – the results can be found in the odoriferous realm of refuse left to marinate and bake in the sun on corners and curbsides.

Between November 2017 and November 2018, the 47 full-time workers in the Department of Environmental Health’s roadside collection section took an average of 18 sick days apiece. (For reference, the usual statutory allotment is 10 paid sick days a year.) More than one-third of those workers – 16 of them – took more than 20 sick days during that time. That equates to more than a month of leave, in addition to vacations, holidays, etc.

A DEH spokesperson described the use of sick days as “quite excessive.” We might describe them as “apparently coordinated.”

Cayman’s solid waste workers are not unionized, but the use (and abuse) of sick leave comes straight from the pages of a union playbook. The thing about garbage collectors is they tend to be tough, and they do not mind getting their hands dirty. Those characteristics, in the context of labor negotiations, can prove extremely effective. Consider that, in 1968, it only took nine days for striking garbage collectors to bring New York City to its knees.

When unions go on strike, employ “sick outs” or coordinate “slowdowns,” they usually have points of contention, for example, working conditions, hours, equipment, job security, salaries or issues with individuals in management.

We wish that we could say what Cayman’s garbage collectors want, or at minimum determine if their use of sick days constitutes a protest, general lethargy or abuse of overtime pay. But we cannot. (One of the only bad things about the absence of public unions in Cayman is that there is not a single person to whom we could request clarification or comment, in situations such as this.)

Last September, government’s internal auditors completed a report identifying that DEH had exceeded its 2016/17 budget for overtime expenses by nearly $2 million, and highlighting the potential for a “formal fraud investigation.”

In late 2017, then-DEH Director Roydell Carter was placed on leave. In July 2018, the government announced that Richard Simms and Mark Bothwell would serve as interim Acting Director and Acting Assistant Director for the department’s solid waste division. Two months later, ministerial Chief Officer Jennifer Ahearn announced that Mr. Carter had “opted to retire from the civil service.”

While auditors were examining evidence of mismanagement behind the scenes, officials were issuing public statements attempting to attribute the inconsistencies in garbage collection to various causes ranging from staff absenteeism to vehicle downtime.

In summary, the communications coming from official channels, in relation to ongoing problems with garbage collection, have been inadequate, in conflict with information that later came to the public’s attention, and on balance, untrustworthy.

All we really know for certain is what our eyes (and noses) tell us: Grand Cayman’s garbage has not been getting picked up on schedule for more than a year, and nobody in government seems to be able or willing to tell the public why.

So what we have at this point, unfortunately, are questions, including:

  • Has a “formal fraud investigation” commenced into the issues identified in the auditors’ report?
  • What were the conditions of former-Director Carter’s resignation?
  • Mr. Simms and Mr. Bothwell were to focus their efforts on fleet maintenance, staff hours and schedule maintenance. What are the results?
  • Have garbage collection crews been advocating for the redress of specific grievances? If so, what are those grievances?
  • Environmental Health Minister Dwayne Seymour and Chief Officer Ahearn, is there anything you would care to share with the public on this noxious, most likely toxic, intractable dilemma?

1 COMMENT

  1. ‘One of the only bad things about the absence of public unions in Cayman is that there is not a single person to whom we could request clarification or comment, in situations such as this.’

    That’s an extremely valid point. My politics are definitely well right of centre but in my civil service days I was active in one of the big staff associations (posh term for labour – note the correct English spelling – unions) and the way that worked was very productive. We had what were know as ‘Staff Side’ committees with meetings where representatives and management could work together and, if necessary, bang heads over the kind of issues that I suspect are plaguing DEH. One of the ground rules was that in those meetings everyone was equal – you left your pay grade status at the door as you walked in and it was just about acceptable (I did it on occasions) to suggest that a senior manager was talking out of his backside.

    Simple fact of life – people do not skive off work or break machinery so they don’t have to work unless (as this Editorial correctly suggests) there are other underlying problems.

    To give an example of the issues we tackled in the UK – an office I worked with had an annual staff turnover of roughly 35%. In a nominal complement of just on 200 we were losing 70 staff members a year because they just got p***ed off with the way the place was being run. Bearing mind it took three months training to get new recruits up to speed that was a serious problem. After being persuaded to change two managers that figure dropped to an acceptable 10% but it would probably never have happened without the staff side consultation process.

    To be properly motivated staff need to feel part of the work they are doing not just paid employees, foot soldiers if you like, earning a pay cheque and that could well be the problem here.

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