This article appeared in the February 2021 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.
It’s not an understatement to say that COVID-19 changed nearly every aspect of life for families, businesses, educational institutions and governments.
At materials recovery facilities, the impact has been huge on the staffing and HR side. Suddenly deemed “essential” workers, MRF employees saw realities change on the sort line and at home.
This is the story about the human side of MRFs during COVID-19.
Masks and a whole lot more
Safety was already the top priority for many MRF operators pre-COVID, but the focus on wellness took on new meaning through 2020.
When the pandemic hit in March, safety protocols were quickly put in place at facilities to ensure social distancing on the sort line, in common areas and between shifts. Tents were erected at some sites to provide additional “break room” space that kept people apart. Hand washing was enforced.
And masks? Many of Leadpoint’s associates were already wearing masks because of the dusty environment inside sort facilities. Now, everyone was. (The author of this story is an executive at Leadpoint, which provides workforce solutions to MRFs nationwide.)
“I cover up a lot more, especially my face, and it makes me feel safer,” John Clement, a sorter at a MRF in Texas, said. “I am a lot more aware of people around me and am washing my hands a lot more than usual.”
Last year, Leadpoint invested significant time and resources on cleaning and cleaning supplies to keep employees safe. More people were dedicated to housekeeping and cleaning up. That additional housekeeping in common areas provided disinfected break rooms and sanitized rest rooms in an otherwise dirty environment. A silver lining: The attention to cleanliness made MRFs a more amenable place to work in otherwise difficult times, which was a welcome outcome for everyone.
What changed most for Leadpoint’s safety team was the constant demand to manage an ever-changing COVID environment. Safety leaders at MRFs spent much of their time last year handling COVID situations, such as tracking quarantines and the return-to-work status of different employees.
Like the rest of the country, the priority among MRF managers was making sure people didn’t get sick and helping people make good decisions about their behavior and health, both at work and at home.
“We communicated, became a trusted source of information, and provided details about best practices,” said Brian Haney, Leadpoint’s vice president of safety and compliance. “It became our job to take tangible action to alleviate fear and make sure our people knew we were paying attention to their personal safety.”
The impact on emotional health
The MRF environment is a difficult work environment even in the best of times. Add in the lack of human interaction during a pandemic, and you have a situation that took a toll on everyone.
Pre-COVID, Leadpoint’s sorters, line leads and managers had confidence that their jobs would be there for them, their pay would be regular, and their kids would go to school. They enjoyed the camaraderie of working as part of a team that provided a community service and improved the environment.
In 2020, everyone felt exposed, no matter what their job was. Employees weren’t immune to the emotional impacts COVID put on their families and loved ones. Their life went from “Do my job and go home” to “Will I have a job?” and “What happens to my job and my family if I get sick?”
For sorters, a typical day included more training, fewer people at each station and more stress in general.
With schools closed, childcare became an issue for MRF employees. They often couldn’t afford paid care even if they could find it, but they couldn’t afford to miss work either.
The camaraderie folks used to have at the MRF built morale and fostered teamwork. It was an outlet to talk about life, connecting over shared lunches and breaks. With COVID, break rooms were blocked off, tables were taken away and TVs were turned off. People ate in their cars and didn’t talk to one another as much.
Throughout the pandemic, Leadpoint relentlessly communicated to its associates the message that the company cares about each worker and each worker’s family. Further, managers have encouraged staff to stay home if people don’t feel well, letting them know there’s no stigma about calling in sick. The company has tried to make it clear that when your manager asks, “How are you?” he or she really is interested in how you’re feeling.
That personal touch seems to be helping.
“In the middle of a pandemic, we saw teams become stronger and really pull together,” said Pat Hudson, Leadpoint’s vice president of customer experience. “We saw lower turnover rates because our sorters knew the people around them and had confidence that they were safe as a team, so they stuck with the job. Our managers did a tremendous job of sharing concern for one another and reinforcing that everyone is part of the team.”
He added: “We’re human. We care for one another.”
Finding flexibility in scheduling
The pandemic has also presented MRFs with new challenges when it comes to workforce logistics.
For instance, getting to work became a struggle for many sorters and other employees. Because many MRFs are remote and not served by public transportation, carpools are typically a popular way to get to work. But if one person in a carpool group becomes infected, everyone is exposed and suddenly four people are out of work. Without carpools, sometimes a spouse or neighbor provided a ride to work, juggling that task with their own schedules. Some employees rode their bikes to work.
Scheduling also became a huge challenge, requiring managers to get creative.
Some employees asked for more hours to maximize overtime income and make up for the loss of other income sources at home. Others wanted a part time or reduced schedule so they could handle childcare or coordinate with their spouse’s job.
Ron Morgan, a MRF sorter in Wisconsin, said, “Since the pandemic has started, family time has decreased, and I have gone from part-time to full-time work.”
When employees have been sick or were exposed to the virus, Leadpoint has kept in contact with them, reassured them that their job would be there waiting for them, and provided encouragement.
The company also adjusted schedules to cover open slots and meet their employees’ needs to come in later or go home earlier. Employees were offered options such as staggered starts, rotating and hybrid schedules and part-time options.
A typical request MRF managers have heard over the past year: “Can I come in at 8:00 instead of 7:00? Schools are closed, and my daycare doesn’t open until 7:30.” Clearly, facilities have had to find ways to accommodate many different schedule needs during unprecedented times.
Bigger burden on the sort line
In many ways, COVID didn’t change much about the basics of a sorter’s job. What did change is the material that came through the MRFs that handle residential recycling. Volumes were up substantially, by 30% in many sites, along with a big increase in contamination due to a lack of recycling education.
The “Amazon effect” continued to bring more OCC to facilities. And in California, container lines were slammed after redemption centers closed temporarily.
This added volume added complexity to the sorter’s job. As burden depths on the belt went up, so did the need for faster, more productive picks and sorting capabilities. As AI and robotics were deployed, those technologies relieved some of the pressure. In some facilities, Leadpoint was able to slow the speed of the infeed to meet quality demands.
But to a large extent, the pressure was on the backs of the employees on the line.
Leadpoint hires really good people, invests in them, and works hard to retain them. This approach keeps productive, well-trained associates on the job and helps each MRF maintain enough people on each sort line to accommodate changes in volume and absences due to COVID exposure. Ongoing, real-time coaching also worked to improve performance. But training itself required new approaches.
Leadpoint employs thousands of MRF employees at sites across the country. As an employer, the company provides mandated training as well as courses on processes, safety and “soft” skills.
Previously, a Leadpoint team would fly to a site to deliver training and hope that everyone would be present on training day. It was expensive, time-consuming and imperfect. Over the past year, training has largely shifted to online platforms such as Microsoft Teams.
The initial challenge was adopting the new technology platforms and integrating them into management routines. But once training was assigned and completed virtually, online attendance jumped to nearly 100%, travel and scheduling challenges were eliminated, and new sites and staff were ramped-up quickly.
Meanwhile, the company’s training team had more time to develop additional training modules, like a Line Lead Academy, which the company will roll out (virtually) later this year.
A better working environment in the long term
The COVID pandemic will end at some point, and when it does, many of the efficiencies and cultural improvements that have taken place at MRFs are likely to stay.
“We’ve learned to operate differently and raised awareness about the value of cleanliness and overall employee health,” Haney said.
Haney predicts MRFs will be healthier workplaces overall because of the lessons learned during the pandemic. For instance, seasonal illnesses like the flu may be minimized if some of the protocols implemented during 2020 are maintained.
In all, MRFs and their employees have adapted to these extraordinary conditions of the past year, enabling community recycling programs to continue. And while most everyone in our industry is likely tired of all the shifting around, there is one change everyone can look forward to: It will be good to see people smiling again.
Mike Huycke is the vice president of business development at Leadpoint, a company that helps recycling companies make better decisions about how to maximize their workforce and improve the productivity, efficiency and profitability of their operations. Huycke can be contacted at mike.[email protected]