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On the Front Lines: Keeping Atlanta Safe

The DPW has continued essential functions to maintain the city’s cleanliness and safety

By James A. Jackson,

The City of Atlanta Department of Public Works (DPW) consists of 509 employees who are responsible for Solid Waste Services to include garbage, recycling and yard trimming collections from 98,000 households weekly. The collection of bulk items on a scheduled basis from these households includes residential and commercial street sweeping of 1,428 centerline miles and 240.4 state route miles; right-of-way maintenance for approximately 700 lane miles and island areas; litter basket collection along major corridors throughout the city; illegal sign removal and dead animal collection. DPW is also responsible for the acquisition, maintenance and disposal of over 5,000 vehicles and pieces of equipment for the city.

With the onset of COVID-19, the department followed every precautionary measure issued by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the mayor’s Pandemic Fusion Team and the governor of the State of Georgia. The department’s priority was to ensure that every team member was aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 and understood the protocol to follow should they or a family member begin to exhibit those symptoms. DPW also provided and wore proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Out of concern and appreciation for the tremendous work DPW employees continued to perform as “essential employees,” the mayor visited with the team to express her heartfelt appreciation and concern for their well-being as we continued to provide critical services to the community. Mayor Bottoms assured our front-line staff they would receive incentive pay for their efforts; as a result, each essential employee now receives a monthly stipend of $500 per month and 24 hours per week of compensatory time while we remain in this pandemic posture.

The department’s priority was to ensure that every team member was aware of the symptoms of COVID-19 and understood the protocol to follow should they or a family member begin to exhibit those symptoms.

Before the mayor’s executive order requiring that everyone, including city employees, wear a mask when out in public or when inside a city of Atlanta public facility – the wearing of masks was strongly encouraged to our team members. Following the mayor’s executive order on July 8, employees were required to have masks on when in public, in city buildings or when using city equipment. An additional measure employed by the mayor’s pandemic team was to ensure all facilities were trained on and employed the temperature protocol to identify potential symptoms in city employees before they entered city facilities at the start of their workday.

As part of the mayor’s efforts to protect employees, DPW also required residents to schedule collections of any items that would not fit into their city-issued containers for garbage and recycling. This measure caused the department’s wait time for bulk service to rise precipitously from an average of 7 to 10 days to more than 60 days in over a three-month period. DPW’s scheduled bulk collection service remains at 50+ days to receive scheduled bulk collections. It has been suggested this increase is due to the stay-at-home executive order issued by the mayor on March 23 following the announcement of the pandemic and the subsequent executive order of the Georgia governor declaring a State of Emergency on March 14.

At the onset of the virus in March, a total of five DPW employees were impacted, with two having to be quarantined due to family members they cared for or were living with. One month later, DPW saw slight increases to the impact of operations; closing two facilities for professional cleaning. One of our facilities was closed a second time in June, after which we saw a significant increase in infected employees, bringing the total to 24 at the time of this writing. The overall impact to service operations did not begin to significantly affect DPW until July 10 when attendance fell below 64% and inhibited our ability to collect weekly residential yard trimming set outs.

To offset this disruption, DPW is undertaking the following measures to ensure our ability to continue high-level services:

  • Establish residential yard trimming drop-off locations.
  • Augment departmental personnel through the Atlanta Work Source program, utilizing the federal National Emergency Grant (NEG) to obtain personnel equipped with uniforms and funding for training at no cost to the department for up to four months (120 days).
  •  Augmentation of city personnel not currently engaged in any city-related activity while on the city’s payroll to serve as blight monitors alongside the department’s Solid Waste Education and Enforcement Officers (SWEET), code enforcement and 311 customer service representatives; and
  •  Revisit the department’s emergency contracts to ensure there is adequate support to augment forces as needed in the event of future personnel shortages.

Despite the sudden onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the impact the crisis has had on the nation and its ability to provide vital public services, DPW has worked strategically and diligently to ensure environmental compliance, good working relationships within our communities, and high standards of professional management to achieve and maintain Mayor Bottom’s vision for the city of Atlanta, while protecting the public health, safety and welfare of our employees, citizens and visitors.

James A. Jackson is the commissioner for the City of Atlanta Department of Public Works. He has previously worked with the DPW for cities such as Washington, D.C., Detroit, Richmond, Va., and Wayne County, Mich.