More yard waste piles, more workers out sick: How Omicron is whacking Louisville services

·8 min read
Trash and recycle containers sit at the curb awaiting pickup.
Trash and recycle containers sit at the curb awaiting pickup.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — No yard waste collection. Fewer community outreach programs. Dozens of police officers, firefighters and bus drivers out sick.

The more-contagious omicron variant — which has infected both the vaccinated and unvaccinated — is taking a huge toll on the municipal services Louisville's residents have come to rely on.

Through the latest challenging spell of an exhausting pandemic, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer has held off on requiring COVID-19 vaccination for Metro Government workers, telling The Courier Journal during a year-end interview in December he believed a vaccine mandate could worsen the staffing facing several city departments.

"It's no secret that we've got some significant openings in public safety — particular 20% to 25% in police and corrections — so we've got this kind of issue of 'OK, if we mandate, will that lead to more fall off in some of our employment bases at certain departments?'" Fischer said. "So what we're trying to do right now is just use more of a carrot approach.”

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That has meant offering bonuses ranging from $500 to $5,000 for fully vaccinated Metro Government employees.

Public safety agencies have lagged in vaccination rates in Metro Government, The Courier Journal previously has reported, with Public Works, Corrections and LMPD among the lowest by city agency.

The most recent vaccination data the city provided to The Courier Journal was from Jan. 5 and showed 66% of Metro Government employees who responded to a survey were vaccinated. (The data did not indicate the percentage of staff in each agency who responded.)

It showed vaccination rates as low as 49% for Solid Waste Management Services and 51% for Metro Corrections, 57% for Louisville's fire and rescue, 58% for Youth Transitional Services and 59% for Louisville Metro Police.

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Metro Corrections is simultaneously struggling with staffing issues that have led to a federal investigation after five people incarcerated in the city's jail died during a six-week period, the latest death occurring Jan. 9.

LMPD, which has 1,028 sworn staff, had 59 officers and nine civilian employees out because of COVID-19, department spokesman Aaron Ellis said Jan. 10.

As of Tuesday, Louisville Fire Department spokesman Bobby Cooper said about 7% of staff making up its 460 positions were out for COVID-related reasons, down from a 12% rate earlier in the month.

Firefighters inspect the damage to the Kuhl's Liquor and Deli on Grade Lane due to an early morning fire in Louisville, Ky. on Feb. 7, 2021.
Firefighters inspect the damage to the Kuhl's Liquor and Deli on Grade Lane due to an early morning fire in Louisville, Ky. on Feb. 7, 2021.

About half of the absences are from "COVID-positive cases," while the other half are "quarantined due to possible exposure," Cooper wrote in an email, adding the fire department's vaccination rate remains around 50%.

"Some non-emergency services provided by LFD have been suspended to limit exposure and spread of the virus," Cooper said.

That includes community outreach programs and fire prevention initiatives, he said.

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Metro Public Works suspended yard waste collection at the start of January "until further notice" because of what it called a "drastic staffing shortage due to the COVID-19 surge." The city said residents could continue to bring yard waste to still-open Christmas tree drop-off locations.

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Metro Public Works spokeswoman Sal Melendez said as of Jan. 5, more than 13% of the department's 450 employees — about 60 workers — were "out to COVID-related reasons," with the majority working in the Solid Waste Management Services division.

About half had positive cases, while the others were quarantining "due to possible exposure," Melendez said.

By Tuesday, Melendez said 28 personnel, or about 6% of Metro Public Works staff, were out due to COVID-19.

Workers from other city departments were available to help Metro Public Works respond to snowstorms affecting the city.

"Yard waste curbside pick-up is the only service currently impacted by COVID," Melendez said in an email. "All other sanitation services — weekly garbage and recycling collection, litter abatement, homeless encampment cleaning and large item pick-up and snow removal — continue to be provided as scheduled."

TARC's drivers slammed by virus

Transit Authority of River City, the Louisville region's bus system, has seen its roughly 330 drivers and 119 maintenance workers get exposed to COVID-19 at an "alarming rate," according to Lillian Brents, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1447.

Brents said TARC's safety director recently told her the agency is not just in the "red" zone for COVID cases but actually at a "red-red" level. Similar staffing issues exist with drivers who serve paratrainsit customers via TARC3, Brents said.

TARC spokeswoman Jenny Recktenwald told The Courier Journal in a Jan. 11 email that 5.5% of bus drivers were out for COVID-related reasons. By Jan. 20, Recktenwald said about 10% of bus drivers and mechanics were absent due to COVID-19.

"Service is primarily impacted by a shortage of new drivers recruited — a trend mirrored throughout public transit nationally," she wrote. "The dedicated drivers currently on the road are working diligently to make up for this shortage. All efforts are being taken to get new drivers in the door."

Recktenwald said TARC welcomed a new class of 12 trainees earlier this month, with new classes running about every two months.

Slightly more than half of TARC's workforce was vaccinated as of Jan. 10 (71% of nonunion staff, 43% of union staff) and the agency initially planned on requiring those not fully vaccinated by Feb. 9 to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing, with tests provided on-site, according to Recktenwald.

(Booster shots are not yet required to meet the "fully vaccinated" definition.)

In response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Recktenwald said TARC informed employees Friday it will suspend the weekly testing policy for now.

Recktenwald said TARC has rapid tests on hand, "regardless of whether it’s by mandate or by voluntary measure for employees to protect themselves and others."

Similar staffing and COVID-related issues exist with drivers who serve paratrainsit customers via TARC3, which has faced ongoing rider complaints of long wait times, Brents said.

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Brents noted drivers risk losing their jobs if they must take an extended period of time off from COVID-19, since accumulating too many "points" for absences after using up sick leave can lead to termination.

"Some people have been out for a month," Brents said. "Very few have enough sick time to coincide with the CDC recommendation of quarantining and dealing with COVID."

But Recktenwald, the TARC spokeswoman, wrote "in general, employees who have a longer recover from COVID-19 will be able to FMLA and short- or long-term disability, and keep their pay and benefits."

"TARC has conducted multiple on-site vaccine clinics, and allows employees to take up to four hours of duty time per dose (first dose, second dose, or booster) to travel to the vaccination site, receive a vaccination, and return to work," Recktenwald said. "This would mean a maximum of eight hours of duty time for employees receiving two doses. Employees may also utilize up to two workdays of sick leave immediately following each dose if they have side effects from the COVID-19 vaccination that prevent them from working."

"This is a pandemic that’s beyond our control," Brents said. "We do stress being vaccinated. However, people have their own beliefs."

Although an on-site vaccination clinic was held earlier in January for TARC employees, Brents said the agency should hold more clinics and bring in medical experts to provide vaccination info in order to combat misinformation. Recktenwald said another vaccine clinic is planned for the "coming weeks."

"If we build that positive conversation and action behind that, I believe we could possibly get close to 100% vaccination," Brents said. "TARC cannot afford to lose drivers and maintenance workers, and drivers and maintenance workers cannot afford to lose their jobs."

While federal mask mandates remain in place for public transportation, Brents also said she would like to see TARC reimplement service restrictions it had in place when the pandemic began in 2020, such as limiting buses to 25 passengers at a time and encouraging "essential" trips only.

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Recktenwald said TARC also continues to practice "increased cleaning and sanitizing of buses" and places driver shields on buses to help protect drivers and riders.

Drivers for TARC, whose director is appointed by the mayor but otherwise has an independent board, are not lumped in with other Metro Government employees when it comes to "premium pay" offered through ARP funding.

But in October, the TARC board did approve $3,000 bonuses for all union employees who worked over 1,500 hours between March 2020 and March 2021. All non-union employees hired before Oct. 1, 2021, also were approved for $500 bonuses.

Concerns about the spread of the coronavirus and the omicron variant have also resulted in a pause on in-person Louisville Free Public Library events and less-notable changes to city government.

For example, the Louisville Metro Office of Planning and Design Services said it was reducing the number of employees in its office starting Jan. 6 through Feb. 4, encouraging anyone to instead call 502-574-6230 or email planningcustomerservice@louisvilleky.gov with any development, preservation or other questions for the office.

COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized for people as young as 5 years old, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has now endorsed booster shots for those 12 and older.

Louisville doctors said this past week an estimated one out of every 15 people in Jefferson County may currently have COVID-19, with 16,287 new cases over the previous week and 26 newly reported deaths.

Ben Tobin and Darcy Costello contributed to this story.

Reach Billy Kobin at bkobin@courierjournal.com.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: How COVID omicron variant impacts Louisville workers, public services

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