Opinion: Don’t forget our solid waste operators

By REAGAN BISSONNETTE

Published: 02-08-2023 7:00 AM

Reagan Bissonnette of Concord is the executive director of Northeast Resource Recovery Association (NRRA).

As dangerously cold winds continued to blow across New Hampshire over the weekend, transfer station staff braced for temperatures far below zero with a wind chill.

In one North Country town, the transfer station facility manager asked to close for staff safety. The town’s leadership refused.

Meanwhile, the manager of a southern New Hampshire transfer station faced uncertainty about whether to close his facility. He wanted to close to keep his staff safe. However, if he did close, his part-time staff would not get paid.

At yet another transfer station, staff faced the lack of a heated indoor space to warm up in between trips outside. Over the manager’s objections, it remained open on Saturday.

These are just three of the many stories I’ve heard recently from some of our state’s most essential workers: our solid waste facility operators who handle our trash and recycling, help our communities reduce waste, and generate revenue for their communities.

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As the executive director of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, a recycling nonprofit whose membership includes 85% of the communities in New Hampshire, I am compelled to advocate for the safety of a group of dedicated municipal staff who sometimes find there is little they can do to advocate for themselves.

As one operator told me, “If we as employees speak up it just puts a target on our backs. Believe me, I have tried and have been told in private by someone to be careful and watch my back.” He continued, “It’s unfortunate these decisions are made by people who don’t work in the elements. Some don’t have a clue what’s involved, nor do they take our input into consideration. There are many times that Town Hall and other departments close, yet we who work outside are told we have to stay open.”

Not to mention that by keeping transfer stations open, residents were being encouraged to travel in extreme weather.

To be clear, not every town that decided to keep its transfer station open in Saturday’s extreme winter weather was being unreasonable. One northern transfer station decided to remain open. They have a heated room in the facility and cameras to show when residents arrive and need assistance outside. They shortened shifts for staff while providing full pay for the day. They felt comfortable that they could both keep their staff safe and remain open.

I also applaud towns that have thoughtful policies in place to handle situations like extreme cold. The Town of Wilton allows for two “Act of God” days for unexpected situations at their transfer station. This covers power outages, accidents impeding access to the facility, or a blizzard or extreme weather event. In these and other circumstances when the facility will be closed, employees receive full pay for the hours they are scheduled to work that day. They were closed on Saturday and paid their staff.

We need to respect the health and safety of all our residents and workers during extreme weather events in New Hampshire, especially as they increase in frequency. This means remembering to include the health and safety of our solid waste facility operators as well.

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