Staffing shortages, COVID-19, shorter hours and inefficient equipment are among the reasons that have led to some street sweeping routes being missed for weeks at a time, according to a city memo, but the Public Works department is optimistic it can turn things around as “leaf season” hits Long Beach.
The city’s Street Sweeping division has up to 14 routes to service per day and has 18 positions (17 sweeper operators and one supervisor) budgeted in the division but has been reduced to just nine sweeper operators at its lowest point, Diko Melkonian, deputy director of Public Works wrote in the memo.
Being shorthanded has forced sweeper drivers to cover multiple routes with drivers converging on routes that would be otherwise missed once they’ve finished their assigned routes. However, there isn’t always enough time to complete the work within the posted sweeping times, the memo said.
The shortages were attributed to unfilled positions, employees using normal paid time off as well as exposure to COVID-19. While in the past the division was able to plug in other employees to fill gaps to ensure street sweeping is completed, changes to which unions represent each job classification ended that practice, the memo said.
Public Works spokesperson Joy Contreras said that driving a sweeper requires a special certification, but not a specific license. She added that the department is hopeful now that a new personnel officer has started work that the recruitment process to fill open positions can be sped up.
Contreras said that she was unsure how many staff shortages were due to sweeper operators being unvaccinated but said that there were some absences related to the virus.
“They themselves may be healthy but they may have a caretaking role in their family,” Contreras said.
She said that routes that are not swept do not result in residents being ticketed for being parked on the wrong side of the street, noting that the parking enforcement team follows the sweeper operator on its route.
Employee shortages and the cost of testing unvaccinated employees were two factors that played into the city’s decision to announce a full vaccine mandate for city employees in late September.
The city’s Public Works department was the third least vaccinated department according to a report in late September that showed just 65% of Public Works employees were fully vaccinated, ranking above only the Long Beach Fire Department (59%) and Long Beach Police Department (57%). A total of 160 Public Works employees were unvaccinated as of Sept. 30.
COVID-19 was also referenced as an issue for sweeper maintenance as the city’s Fleet Services Bureau mechanics have been forced to quarantine and miss work that has forced less efficient air sweepers to be used on broom sweeper routes.
In some cases, there haven’t been enough vehicles available to service each route.
“Broom sweepers are the preferred vehicle in most circumstances as they are more effective and efficient compared to the air sweepers when used on city streets,” Melkonian wrote. “Air sweepers must be driven more slowly to provide a quality sweep on street routes.”
Melkonian said that the air sweepers are also forced to return to the city facility at Temple Avenue and Willow Street to empty their loads unlike the broom sweepers, which can do that in the field. This adds to the time crunch the sweeps operators are already under due to the smaller windows they can operate in.
The city is working to replace some of the air sweepers with broom sweepers, Melkonian added.
Street sweeping hours were reduced in 2016 in a move that both cut in half the time that cars were not allowed to park on a given side of a street, and dramatically changed the start times for street sweeping in residential neighborhoods.
Two-hour sweeping windows and later start times have been beneficial to some residents but those same time reductions were referenced in the memo as an obstacle that has made it harder to clean the city’s streets under the department’s current circumstances.
With “Leaf Season” starting, Melkonian said that the department would try to educate residents about disposing of their leaves and other debris properly, rather than pushing it into the gutter, which makes the sweepers’ jobs harder. Melkonian said that the department is also working to track missed routes more closely with the hope of not missing a given route more than once per month.
Support our journalism.
Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.