Trouble with trash: Eau Claire residents complain of delayed

EAU CLAIRE — Diane Nelson had been happy enough with the residential garbage service for her Eau Claire home that she hadn’t switched haulers in 40 years.

But this spring when a spate of service delays left her garbage can sitting at the curb past her usual Monday pick-up date, she became frustrated.

“I never minded when there was a holiday and they picked up on Tuesday. But it started happening every week,” she said in an email to the Leader-Telegram. “Then I’d get an email saying it would be Wednesday … or Thursday … or Friday.”

The persistent lateness prompted Nelson to switch from being a longtime customer of Waste Management in late May, switching to the other large hauler serving the Eau Claire market, GFL Environmental.

Like other Eau Claire residents who found their once-reliable garbage service had become frequently postponed, Nelson went on social media to commiserate.

The neighborhood-centric app Nextdoor has numerous long threads of messages going back to spring where people living in and around Eau Claire share stories of garbage pick-up delays, calls to customer service and recommendations for preferred haulers.

Garbage service problems also became the talk of in-person gatherings as well.

“At that neighborhood association meeting in May, a lot of neighbors brought up they’d been having issues with Waste Management,” Teresa Oberweis, president of the Putnam Heights Neighborhood Association, recalled during a phone interview this week.

Hearing the chorus of complaints from her neighbors and seeing more on Nextdoor, Oberweis called up City Hall to notify them of the problems people were getting with on-time garbage pickup.

She wasn’t the only one.

“There are definitely complaints that are coming in,” said David Solberg, Eau Claire’s deputy city manager and engineering director.

He characterized it as a small, but vocal, amount of residents who have raised issues with garbage hauling to the attention of city officials for a couple of months.

That led to a June 27 meeting that both GFL and Waste Management were invited to at City Hall attended by Solberg and a city code enforcement officer.

“We wanted to try and understand what the challenges were,” Solberg said.

A representative from Waste Management attended to explain the service delays were due to a shortage of drivers to handle routes in the area.

“They shared with us that they were down about 35% of their staff,” Solberg recalled.

In an email to the Leader-Telegram, Lynn Morgan, public affairs manager for Waste Management in the Upper Midwest, said the delays in Eau Claire are solely due to an employee shortage.

“We’re navigating a shortage of drivers, pure and simple,” she wrote. “Our labor market has a shortage of CDL drivers, as does the transportation industry nationally.”

To be more competitive in its hiring, the company is helping aspiring drivers earn their CDL credentials, and increased wages and benefits, Morgan added.

To address delays in garbage pickup in Eau Claire, the company has brought in drivers from elsewhere and had managers with licenses to drive the trucks pitch in as well.

“In the short-term, our drivers are working as hard as they can to take care of our Eau Claire customers,” Morgan wrote.

Recognizing the company is in a very competitive labor market, especially for commercial truck drivers, the city has not sought to punish it.

“The trash haulers are encountering the same problems as virtually every other business in our society are experiencing right now,” Solberg said.

GFL did not attend last months’ meeting at City Hall, Solberg said. The city had received a complaint about how the mechanical arms on that company’s trucks set garbage cans down after collecting trash from them.

Going beyond city officials, some disgruntled Waste Management customers have been talking to state politicians from the Chippewa Valley.

The office of state Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, confirmed it has gotten complaints about the company’s service delays in the area.

Victoria Casola, a research assistant in his office, stated in an email that the representative is trying to get in contact with the company’s local office to talk about the delays.

“Because they are a private company, there is not much we can do in the capacity of our office, but we are definitely trying to have a conversation and figure out why our constituents are not getting helped,” Casola wrote.

State Rep. Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, said her office hasn’t been directly contacted about the garbage delays, she’s well aware of the issue.

“As I’m out walking around through the neighborhood or people run into me in the coffee shop, definitely it’s something people are talking about,” she said.

Emerson does attribute the delays to staffing shortages, which many employers have been experiencing. But she also recognizes that

“It is concerning, it is something we need to look at because it’s a public health issue of trash piling up,” she said.

While state politicians can raise the level of discussion to the problems with trash service, Emerson said it currently is something that’s in the realm of local officials.

City ordinances regulate the hours of refuse collection and have a general schedule for what parts of the city garbage trucks can drive in on specific days of the week.

Haulers are normally limited to collect garbage and recyclables between 5 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. on weekdays. However, the Eau Claire City-County Health Department decided late last month that trucks could run outside those hours during July to allow for timely trash pick-up.

The selection in Eau Claire is limited between two big companies Waste Management and GFL, and small local hauler Earthbound Environmental Solutions.

Oberweis has experience with service from both of the area’s big garbage haulers. For her home she has GFL, but had long used Waste Management at her workplace in Chippewa Falls. Service problems led her to notify Waste Management at the end of 2021 that she would be changing companies for the roll-off container at her business, effective at the end of March when her billing period was up.

After making numerous calls, spending hours on the telephone, going up the customer service ladder to supervisors and managers, confirming her service termination notice was received, the company hasn’t picked up its container.

“They won’t get it and they continue to bill me,” she said, noting a handful of payment notices the company sent her after she’d already switched her business’ service to GFL.

GFL’s acquisition of homegrown Boxx Sanitation last fall left some frustrations among customers inherited in the deal.

Customer Craig Kindrick said the buyout has been a “nightmare.”

“Not the same since Boxx owned,” he wrote in an email to the Leader-Telegram. “Never had any issues for the years we had them and know all of a sudden have all kinds of issues.”

His garbage was picked up a day late at least three times in the last few months. The service date was eventually switched permanently, but Kindrick said it wasn’t well communicated to him.

Some others on Nextdoor reported occasional service issues with GFL, complaints about line items on their bills or grieving the loss of local customer service provided by Boxx. But then there were many who recommended GFL, stating it’s been more reliable than Waste Management lately.

Mark Vinall, general manager for GFL’s operations in the area, said the company hasn’t been having service delays. In a phone call with the Leader-Telegram, he said GFL isn’t having the driver issues that his competition has had and continues to bring on new employees as more people sign up for service.

“We’ve been picking up lots of customers right now,” Vinall said.

Among those is Nelson, the Eau Claire resident who switched from Waste Management in late May. She’s been happy with her new service, but also acknowledged what her former hauler has been struggling with.

“They are obviously having trouble finding good help, like many other local businesses,” she wrote to the Leader-Telegram.

Oberweis is less forgiving about Waste Management’s claims it’s been having difficulty finding workers.

“A labor shortage that can’t be your excuse for three to four months,” she said. “It is time somebody gets involved and cracks down and say this is an issue.”

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