Kevin Jensen, a temp from MaineWorks, picks up recycling for the city of Portland on Wednesday, The city’s public works department has struggled to fill positions and keep up with trash and recycling pickup this winter. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Portland residents have been warned to expect trash and recycling delays as the city struggles to fill vacancies in the public works department.

The city has had dozens of persistent vacancies across various departments over the last few years. Despite advertising efforts, referral incentives and signing bonuses, 242 jobs remained unfilled as of Wednesday.

One of the most affected departments is public works, where 17 out of 60 maintenance positions are currently open. Maintenance workers are responsible for repairing sidewalks, keeping traffic lights working, and collecting trash and recycling. Those still on the job are working grueling overtime shifts to make up for the openings. The city also has had a contract with Casella since 2020 to help with trash removal, said Mike Murray, the city’s director of public works.

The city is paying Casella $500,000 a year to run one of the city’s three trash routes five days a week, Murray said on Wednesday.

“Right now staffing shortages are impacting virtually all the divisions we have at public works,” Murray said.

The issue has only grown worse with the winter weather.


“The crew that does trash and recycling is also the crew that does (snow) plow operations,” Murray said. “So trash (crews) could be plowing for an eight-hour shift overnight and then go straight into a daily shift collecting trash.”

In the See Click Fix section of the city’s website, where residents can report problems, numerous people have complained in recent days about recycling bins not being emptied and discarded Christmas trees, which were supposed to be placed at the curb and picked up in January, sitting out for weeks on end.

“Hello, there’s been a Christmas tree on the sidewalk here for over a month,” one Parkside resident wrote. “In fact, as I travel around the Parkside neighborhood, there are Christmas trees on the sidewalk up and down pretty much every street. Is it possible to collect this Christmas tree, as well as the dozens of others throughout the neighborhood on the sidewalk? On some corners there are mountains of 4-8 trees.”

The department prioritizes plowing snow first, then collecting trash, Murray said. Recycling and Christmas trees are lower priority because they don’t pose a safety risk or attract seagulls and other animals.

Kevin Jensen, a temp from MaineWorks, picks up recycling while working for the city of Portland on Wednesday. The city also has temporarily contracted with Casella to run one of its three routes. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Residents often are frustrated because they worry their recycling won’t be picked up at all, he said, but even if collectors can’t make it on the assigned day, bins that are left out will eventually be emptied.

“We aren’t asking for anyone’s sympathy, we just ask for patience,” Murray said.


Public works also has been hiring temporary day labor through MaineWorks to help with trash and recycling collections. On Wednesday morning, there was at least one temporary worker out on a city recycling route, but Murray said the number of contract workers can vary day to day depending on absences.

The city pays employees overtime if they work more than eight hours in the same day, but they are prohibited from working more than 16 consecutive hours. Murray said he did not know how much the city is spending on overtime pay for these workers.

Maintenance workers with the solid waste division make between $44,750 and $47,840 per year as a base salary.

An added struggle for the division is a shortage of experienced drivers. Some workers are still in the process of obtaining a commercial drivers license, which they need to operate snowplows and trash trucks. The city pays for CDL training and currently has 10 employees working toward their licenses.

Murray is eager to fill all the open positions so operations can speed up, but also so his employees can catch a break.

“The more positions that are filled it means we can bring crews in and give staff a break, they can work more normal eight-hour days. … Right now it’s all hands on deck,” he said.

He said the department is attending job fairs and offering $2,500 signing bonuses for new employees to draw in more applicants.

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