Truck driver shortage stymies trash day for Deffenbaugh and Town & Country

How hard can it be to stop at the driveway once a week and take away the trash?

Dang hard when you can’t find a driver for the truck. And this is where two of the largest refuse disposal companies in the Kansas City area find themselves.

Deffenbaugh Industries and Town & Country Disposal each cite a shortage of qualified drivers for widespread and continuing service misses in multiple communities on both sides of the state line stretching back to last fall. Each company also says it’s doing all it can to fill empty truck cabs.

Proof that they’re still working on it sits as close as the curb. Garbage-stuffed bins, forgotten bags of yard waste and full recycling tubs sit long after they were supposed to be dealt with.

Municipal officials from Lee’s Summit to Lansing have questioned officers of each company about service misses. Fairway residents recently received a detailed mea culpa letter from Kevin O’Brien, a regional vice president of WCA Waste Corp., which owns Town & Country.

“I’ve put Deffenbaugh on notice before,” said Liz Stecklein, vice president of Community Association Management, which manages several homeowner associations in the area that contract for services. “If you don’t pick up, I’m docking your bill.”

Just about every industry that relies on trucks has struggled against a national shortage of qualified drivers, meaning those with a commercial driver’s license who can pass federally mandated physicals and drug tests.

The shortage hit the freight hauling industry particularly hard two years ago and has worked its way down to businesses such as trash services, whose drivers work locally.

“It’s harder to hire a local driver than it’s ever been,” said Gordon Klemp, founder of the National Transportation Institute, which focuses on driver pay.

Trash companies in particular are pinched for drivers because it is physically demanding and sometimes smelly work that exposes crews to every kind of weather.

“We’ve got an image issue and we know that,” said Sharon Kneiss, chief executive of the National Waste & Recycling Association, which represents companies in the business.

Companies are adding technology to trucks to make the job less physically demanding and more appealing. It’s also making new demands on the skills that drivers need.

Missed pickups

Area trash pickup problems surfaced, or at least worsened, with two events last fall.

One was in early October, the bulky-item pickup day for Overland Park residents east of Antioch. The city offers the chance to get rid of an old couch or other large eyesores and hired Deffenbaugh to handle the work. The company fell behind, taking far longer to remove items than promised.

Prairie Village saw problems next. By February, Deffenbaugh district manager Paul Howe stood apologetically before the City Council.

Assistant city administrator Wes Jordan said he believes the events were more than coincidental.

“I was suspicious,” he said. “I was worried they were pulling drivers off our routes to get that massive problem (in Overland Park) taken care of.”

Jordan said Prairie Village service problems continue but are limited to isolated incidents rather than “entire neighborhoods, which we were experiencing before.”

Deffenbaugh and Town & Country both say they’ve dealt with staffing shortfalls in part by pulling in drivers from outside the Kansas City area and by moving some area drivers around. They deny creating new problems by moving drivers to solve existing problems.

Still, Stecklein with the homeowner association management company sees a connection between service issues and bulky-item pickup days in Overland Park or Prairie Village that come on top of regular trash runs.

“I can guarantee you the next week all the trash will be late,” she said.

But the biggest problems that she has seen among her homeowner associations came at Longview Farm in Lee’s Summit.

It began with the second key event last fall, the October purchase of Town & Country by Houston-based WCA Waste Corp.

Service problems at Longview Farm soon followed. Residents put out their trash, yard waste and recycling with an association agreement that they not sit out more than a day.

“You just never know which one they’re going to miss,” said Mike Krogh, president of the Longview Farm Homeowners Association. Service improves for a few weeks, he said, but then problems returned.

Town & Country also has gotten a call from City Hall about service in Lee’s Summit. Residents hire trash services individually from various firms, but complaints to the city targeted Town & Country. Complaints began around New Year’s, ran heaviest in April and surged again earlier this month, said Bob Hartnett, the city’s deputy director of public works.

Meanwhile, Deffenbaugh, which was purchased by Waste Management Inc. in early 2015 for $416 million, promised better service to Lansing officials after problems last winter.

“It hasn’t happened that way,” said Ken Miller, Lansing’s public information officer, who shared time-stamped photos that city employees took June 10 to document full trash bins on East Mary Street the day after they were to be emptied.

Spring tests companies’ hauling capacity because neighborhood curbs begin to fill with bags of yard waste. It means another truck and another run. Ditto with recycling. The three routes essentially triple the number of drivers’ hours a company needs. Federal regulations limit how many hours a commercial driver, including trash truck drivers, can put in.

Leawood residents have had problems in the last year with Deffenbaugh service, which homes associations in the city contract with companies.

Deffenbaugh’s recent problems in Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County led the Unified Government to dispatch a half dozen municipal trucks and three times as many municipal employees to catch up on trash service, said Michael Tobin, director of public works for the Unified Government.

Tobin said the company would get a bill for “several thousand dollars” separate from its rare 20-year service contract that runs through 2033. Deffenbaugh had earned the long contract because of its performance under a previous contract.

“The service was incredible, and it has been up until just a few months ago,” Tobin said.

Slow hires

Deffenbaugh and Town & Country say they’re making progress to fill empty trucks’ cabs.

At Town & Country, O’Brien acknowledged that the problems coincided with the company’s purchase by WCA Waste Corp. He said the company lost some drivers after applying U.S. Department of Transportation compliance standards that govern hours driven at a stretch, physicals and drug tests.

Town & Country has hired more drivers, but most lack refuse pickup experience and all need classroom time, safety training and time on the specific trucks they’ll drive. That can take 30 to 45 days, slowing how quickly the company can fill empty routes.

With 85 drivers, Town & Country still wants to add four or five more. And turnover means more openings in the future.

Deffenbaugh’s driver shortfall doesn’t coincide with its purchase but has become a problem in the Kansas City market more recently. It too is hiring drivers but hasn’t yet caught up with its fleet’s needs.

Its 100 drivers for residential routes and about 140 for commercial routes leave the company still searching for 10 to 15 drivers.

Neither firm believes it is getting drivers from the other’s ranks. Their efforts to keep drivers and attract new ones include more money and benefits.

“We increased wages by almost 20 percent since we took over Town & Country,” said O’Brien, who had been with WCA before the sale.

At Deffenbaugh, experienced drivers with a commercial driver’s license can earn a $4,500 signing bonus, said Lisa Disbrow, a spokeswoman at Waste Management.

And the company is holding hiring days. At one earlier this month, Deffenbaugh made offers to more than half of the 40 drivers who applied. Disbrow said expectations are that not all of those who accept will stick around once they experience the work.

“We’re doing the best we can to hire enough qualified people that want to be in the trash business,” said Howe.

Inside job

Trash trucks also are changing to make the job of driving them more appealing.

Automated loaders pick up heavy trash bins with a mechanical arm that the driver operates with a joystick. These trucks are slowly replacing traditional back loader trucks that require a helper at the back of the vehicle.

Fleets change slowly because the newest trucks are costly. Deffenbaugh, for example, paid more than $300,000 for each of its new compressed natural-gas-powered Curotto-Can trucks.

Deffenbaugh driver Tommy Wright was perched in one last Friday, with temperatures triggering heat alerts along his route. He has seen many industry changes during his 20 years at the wheel of a trash truck. He made it into the cab by getting a commercial driver’s license after eight years as a helper.

Wright, 46, said he has seen temperatures of 130 degrees inside a truck. This summer, he’s one of a few drivers with air conditioning.

The ride remains rough. Each motion and turn by the mechanical arm rocks the cab vigorously. Wright still has to hop out occasionally, for example when the bin is too far from the curb or too close to another object to grab.

Physically, however, maneuvering a mechanical arm with a joystick in air conditioning is much less demanding.

“You can pick up some weight sitting over here running that joystick,” Wright said, adding that he had done just that.

The drive remains challenging — between and around parked cars, in and out of cul-du-sacs, with an eye out for children and distracted drivers.

And there’s the weather.

“I can deal with the heat. I can deal with the rain. But the snow — these are big old bobsleds in the snow,” Wright said.

Wright said the job still gives him the outside experience he likes. And he’s home after a day’s work.

He could make more money driving a route that covered businesses or delivering and picking up big roll-off containers. But those runs start at midnight to 3 a.m. to avoid interfering with the clients’ operations.

“It would be a lifestyle change,” Wright said. “I like what I do.”

With overtime, Wright said he makes decent money.

Deffenbaugh said drivers’ hourly wages in the Kansas City area are the equivalent of $40,000 to $60,000 a year. Commercial routes pay more, and experienced drivers earn more too.

Bidding war

The area’s trash service problems are leading to other changes. One will show up when Prairie Village lets its next contract for service.

Deffenbaugh won the current contract in 2002 and has earned several extensions. It will have plenty of competition when Prairie Village seeks bids in the next few weeks. Already, more than a half dozen firms have shown an interest.

“We haven’t had that much competition in some time, if ever,” the city’s Jordan said.

Regardless of the winner, he said, the new contract will include stiffer fines for missed service.

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar