Funeral Services Held for 12 Killed in Philadelphia Fire 

Funeral services were held Monday for nine children and three adults who died in a Philadelphia fire five days into the new year, the deadliest blaze in the city in more than a century. 

A funeral procession on the rain-soaked streets of the city Monday morning was followed by services at Temple University’s Liacouras Center, to which members of the community were invited and asked to wear white. 

Those in attendance at the three-hour service listened to Bible readings, official proclamations and music. Relatives spoke about their loss and their memories of their loved ones from two microphones behind tables bearing caskets amid white flowers and large pictures of the victims. 

“None of us know what to do with a funeral with 12 people,” said the Reverend Dr. Alyn Waller of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. “We’re in a space of grief and pain we wish on no one else.”

One speaker, an aunt of the children, tearfully said she believed there was “a family reunion in heaven.”

“I believe they’re with their dad. I believe they’re with my mother. I believe they’re with my father, their uncles and aunts,” she said. “The hurt is deep, but it will subside.” 

The victims of the January 5 fire were all on the third floor of a duplex north of the city center near the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The three-story brick duplex was owned by the Philadelphia Housing Authority, which is the city’s public housing agency and the state’s biggest landlord. 

Three sisters — Rosalee McDonald, Virginia Thomas and Quinsha White — and nine of their children died in the blaze, according to family members. The city last week identified the other victims as Quintien Tate-McDonald, Destiny McDonald, Dekwan Robinson, J’Kwon Robinson, Taniesha Robinson, Tiffany Robinson, Shaniece Wayne, Natasha Wayne and Janiyah Roberts. Officials did not provide their ages.

Investigators last week confirmed the fire started at a Christmas tree but stopped short of officially saying that it was sparked by a child playing with a lighter. 

The blaze had been the deadliest fire in years at a U.S. residential building but was surpassed days later by a fire in a high-rise in New York City’s Bronx borough that killed 17 people, including several children. 

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US Civil Rights Leaders Push for Voting Rights Overhaul

Descendants of slain U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. and their supporters marched on Washington Monday to urge Senate Democrats to overcome Republican opposition and obstruction within their own ranks to push through a national overhaul of voting rights.

They rallied on the national holiday honoring King on the 93rd anniversary of his birth. The march occurred just days after two centrist Senate Democrats, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, said they would oppose attempts to change legislative rules in the politically divided 100-member chamber to allow Democrats to set uniform national election rules over the objections of all 50 Republican senators.  

King’s son, Martin Luther King, III, his wife Arndrea Waters King, and their teenage daughter, Yolanda Renee King, joined several hundred activists as they walked in chilly weather across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, symbolizing recent congressional support for a $1.2 trillion infrastructure measure.

“You were successful with infrastructure, which was a great thing,” King told the crowd. “But we need you to use that same energy to ensure that all Americans have the unencumbered right to vote.”

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U.S. President Joe Biden said in a video address that Americans must commit to the unfinished work of Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering jobs, justice and protecting “the sacred right to vote, a right from which all other rights flow.”

“It’s time for every elected official in America to make it clear where they stand,” Biden said. “It’s time for every American to stand up. Speak out, be heard. Where do you stand?”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is calling for a vote as early as Tuesday on the legislation that would expand access to mail-in voting and early voting before the official election days in early November, strengthen federal oversight of elections in states with a history of racial discrimination and tighten campaign finance rules.

Democratic supporters say the legislation is needed to counter new restrictions on voting passed in 19 Republican-led states that some critics say would make it harder for minority and low-income voters to cast ballots. Republicans say the legislation is a partisan power grab by Democrats and would be a federal takeover of elections that the 50 states have typically managed with state-by-state rules.

But the legislation is almost certainly to be killed unless Sinema and Manchin suddenly reverse their opposition to ending use of the Senate filibuster rule that allows opponents of contentious legislation, either Republicans or Democrats, to demand that a 60-vote supermajority be amassed for passage.   

Marches supporting voting rights and other civil rights measures were planned in several U.S. cities on the King holiday.

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Millions Hunker Down As Storm Hits Eastern US

Millions of Americans hunkered down as a major winter storm hit the eastern United States with heavy snow and ice knocking power out for an estimated 130,000 customers as of early Monday.   

The National Weather Service (NWS) said the storm was bringing a miserable combination of heavy snow, freezing rain and high winds, impacting the southeast and coastal mid-Atlantic before moving up to New England and southern Canada. 

A swath from the upper Ohio Valley north to the lower Great Lakes region could expect more than 30 centimeters of snow Monday, it warned. 

In all, more than 80 million people fell under the winter weather alerts, US media reported.

About 235,000 were without power Sunday but by early Monday that had fallen to around 130,000 along the east coast and Kentucky as supplies were restored, according to the website PowerOutage.US. 

The storm spawned damaging tornadoes in Florida and flooding in coastal areas, while in the Carolinas and up through the Appalachians icy conditions and blustery winds raised concerns.    

Transport was seriously disrupted, with thousands of flights canceled, and a portion of busy interstate highway I-95 closed in North Carolina. 

More than 3,000 flights within, into or out of the United States were canceled Sunday.   

Charlotte Douglas International Airport in North Carolina was the worst-affected with 95 percent of its flights grounded, according to the FlightAware website. A further 1,200 flights had been canceled early Monday.   

State of emergency

Drivers were warned of hazardous road conditions and major travel headaches from Arkansas in the south all the way up to Maine, on the Canadian border. 

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp had declared a state of emergency on Friday, and snowplows were at work before noon to clear the roads. 

Virginia and North Carolina also declared states of emergency.   

Virginia State Police said on Twitter they had responded to almost 1,000 crashes and disabled vehicles on Sunday. “Mostly vehicle damage. No reported traffic deaths,” the force said.   

A “multi-vehicle backup,” along with minor crashes, had earlier stopped traffic on a major interstate in the southern part of the state.  

North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper said on Twitter that up to a foot of snow had fallen in some areas by midday, and that “significant icing is causing trouble in the Central part of the state” as he reminded people to stay inside and avoid travel if possible.   

Also in North Carolina, students were shaken up after the storm caused the roof of a college residence hall to collapse, according to a local ABC news station, though no one was hurt.   

“Very scary,” Brevard College sophomore Melody Ferguson told the station. “I’m still shaking to this moment.” 

The NWS even reported some snow flurries in Pensacola, Florida, while usually mild Atlanta, Georgia also saw snow. 

The storm is expected to cause some coastal flooding, and the NWS warned that winds could near hurricane force on the Atlantic coast. 

The northeastern United States already experienced snow chaos earlier this month. When a storm blanketed the northeast, hundreds of motorists were stuck for more than 24 hours on a major highway linking to the capital Washington.  

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Atlanta Church Service Will Celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.

Atlanta’s mayor, Georgia’s governor and U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock are scheduled to attend the annual Martin Luther King Jr. service at King’s old congregation, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. 

The service at Ebenezer and other events surrounding Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorate what would have been King’s 93rd birthday. 

In a news release, the King Center in Atlanta said the 10 a.m. Monday service will be broadcast live on Atlanta’s Fox TV affiliate and on Facebook, YouTube and thekingcenter.org. 

The Rev. Natosha Reid Rice and Pastor Sam Collier will preside over the service. This year’s keynote speaker is the Rev. Michael Bruce Curry, presiding bishop and primate of The Episcopal Church. 

Musical performances are also planned, including Keke Wyatt, Tasha Cobbs Leonard, Pastor Mike Jr., Le’Andria Johnson, and Emanne Beasha. 

“This year’s theme, ‘It Starts with Me: Shifting Priorities to Create the Beloved Community,’ reflects our belief that it is critical, and necessary for the survival of both humanity and Earth, that we shift our priorities for a strategic quest to create a just, humane, equitable and peaceful world,” King Center CEO Bernice King said in a statement. 

The Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday March and Rally is also planned for Monday afternoon in downtown Atlanta. The march is scheduled to end on Auburn Avenue in front of The King Center, where a rally is planned. The King Center is also working with the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and Youth Service America on a voter registration drive Monday in Atlanta. 

“On this King Holiday, I call us up to shift our priorities to reflect a commitment to true peace and an awareness of our interconnectedness, interdependence, and interrelatedness. This will lead us to a greater understanding of our responsibilities to and for each other, which is crucial for learning to live together, achieving ‘true peace,’ and creating the Beloved Community,” Bernice King said in announcing the events. 

Martin Luther King Jr. — pastor, civil rights leader, one of the most beloved figures in the world — dedicated his life to achieving racial equality, a goal he said was inseparable from alleviating poverty and stopping war.  

King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech while leading the 1963 March on Washington, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 and was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis while assisting a strike by underpaid sanitation workers. He was 39. 

King’s example, and his insistence on nonviolent protest, continues to influence many activists pushing for civil rights and social change. 

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Oxfam: World’s 10 Richest Men Doubled Wealth During COVID Pandemic

The world’s 10 wealthiest men doubled their fortunes during the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic as poverty and inequality soared, a report said on Monday.

Oxfam said the men’s wealth jumped from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion, at an average rate of $1.3 billion per day, in a briefing published before a virtual mini summit of world leaders being held under the auspices of the World Economic Forum.

A confederation of charities that focus on alleviating global poverty, Oxfam said the billionaires’ wealth rose more during the pandemic more than it did the previous 14 years, when the world economy was suffering the worst recession since the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

It called this inequality “economic violence” and said inequality is contributing to the death of 21,000 people every day due to a lack of access to health care, gender-based violence, hunger and climate change.

The pandemic has plunged 160 million people into poverty, the charity added, with non-white ethnic minorities and women bearing the brunt of the impact as inequality soared.

The report follows a December 2021 study by the group that found the share of global wealth of the world’s richest people soared at a record pace during the pandemic.

Oxfam urged tax reforms to fund worldwide vaccine production as well as healthcare, climate adaptation and gender-based violence reduction to help save lives.

The group said it based its wealth calculations on the most up-to-date and comprehensive data sources available and used the 2021 Billionaires List compiled by the U.S. business magazine Forbes.

Forbes listed the world’s 10 richest men as: Tesla and SpaceX chief Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, former Microsoft CEOs Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, U.S. investor Warren Buffet and the head of the French luxury group LVMH, Bernard Arnault.

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Somber MLK Remembrances Expected as Voting Rights Effort Dies in US Senate

As the U.S. approaches the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., modern-day civil rights advocates are facing the reality that despite years of increasing public focus on racial injustice, they appear likely to fall short of their goal of improving minorities’ access to the vote.

Last week King’s family requested that celebrations of civil rights leader’s legacy be suspended this year, unless Congress passes legislation to expand voting rights in America.

Democrats have championed legislation that would give Washington a stronger say in how federal elections are administered in each of the 50 U.S. states. While the federal government does not control state-level elections, new federal requirements could affect them, because they are often conducted in tandem. Among other provisions, the two Democratic-sponsored bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, aim to undo laws passed by Republican-led states that limit methods and opportunities to cast ballots.

Democrats and many civil rights activists say the state laws will disadvantage minority voters, and they accuse Republicans of thinly veiled voter suppression. Republicans reject the charge, insisting their goal is to protect the integrity of elections and prevent voter fraud.

Stalled in the U.S. Senate for months, hopes for passing the Freedom to Vote Act appeared to be extinguished last week. Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, both Democrats, said that even though they support reforming election laws, they will not vote to change Senate rules in order to pass those reforms with Democrat-only backing.

A change in Senate rules would be necessary because no Republicans support the voting law bill. Under the chamber’s rules, Republicans can block most legislation even if a Democratic majority supports it.

On Friday, during a livestreamed interview with The Washington Post, Martin Luther King III bitterly criticized Sinema’s and Manchin’s position.

“History is not going to be judging … them in the way that perhaps they would want to be remembered. History is looking [them] dead in the face to say, ‘When it was time to make sure the democracy was preserved, what did you do?’” he said.

How did we get here?

Voting rights did not return to the top of the Democratic priority list overnight. The journey of civil rights issues to the forefront of public discourse in the U.S. has been years in the making.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement after multiple highly publicized police killings of unarmed Black men between 2014 and 2019 galvanized many Americans behind the idea that the U.S. still had a long way to go to reach racial equality.

At the same time, the release of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, an effort to retell the history of the U.S. with more of a focus on the role of slavery, highlighted centuries-old racial inequalities in the U.S. So did a movement to tear down many monuments to the Confederacy, which fought to preserve slavery during the U.S. Civil War of 1861-65.

Pushback, sometimes violent

The increasing focus on racial justice in the U.S. has not come without a virulent reaction. White supremacist groups have become more active and vocal across the country. In 2017, a group of white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. During related protests, one white supremacist activist drove a car into a group of counter-protesters, killing a young woman.

It was also difficult for many to disentangle the presidency of Donald Trump from the battle over racial inequality. Trump came to political power by pushing the falsehood that President Barack Obama, the first Black president, was not an American by birth, and that his presidency was therefore illegitimate. (By law, the president must be a natural-born U.S. citizen.)

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Trump also called for the violent suppression of the Black Lives Matter movement, at one point sending in federal agents to break up a peaceful but boisterous protest near the White House. He also reportedly demeaned African and Black-led countries, asserting that the U.S. should not accept immigrants from them.

At the same time, a movement arose on the political right to restrict the teaching of racially sensitive topics in public schools. The themes protesters object to were short-handed as “critical race theory,” even though that subject is a relatively obscure area of legal scholarship that is never taught in elementary or high schools.

2020 election

The focus on voting rights has always been a major element of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, but it became especially acute in 2021, after minority voters played a major role in electing Joe Biden as president in the 2020 election and helped give Democrats control of the House and Senate.

Across the country, minority voters turned out in record numbers. This was especially true in states like Georgia, a Republican stronghold, where a campaign to register new minority voters and get them to the polls resulted in the state voting for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1992, and sent two Democrats to the Senate for the first time in a generation, giving the party control of that chamber.

After the election, the defeated President Trump insisted the election had been “rigged,” a falsehood that he has continued to repeat, and which many of his supporters, including many state legislators, have echoed.

In the months that followed, many Republican-controlled states passed restrictive new voting legislation that will make it more difficult for minority groups, including the non-English speakers and individuals with disabilities, to vote in future elections than it was in 2020, when measures to ease voting during the coronavirus pandemic helped drive record turnout.

In some cases, states did more than roll back pandemic-related voting accommodations. Some created new provisions allowing state legislatures to intervene in the certification of vote counts, established new rules allowing poll watchers to challenge individual voters, and put volunteer poll workers in danger of criminal prosecution for providing what, in years past, would have been routine voter assistance.

A common reaction

According to Carol Anderson, a historian and professor of African American Studies at Emory University, there is a long history in the United States of laws being changed after Black Americans exercise their freedom in a way that challenges power structures.

“What is happening is what always happens in America,” Anderson, the author of the New York Times bestselling White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, told VOA. “When we look at the 2020 election, where you had black folk coming out and voting, willing to stand in line for 11 hours to vote to fight for this democracy, the result of that was that Trump got removed from the White House and the Senate flipped. The response to that was a white rage policy of a series of voter suppression laws, and a series of laws that were about how to handle certification of elections.”

Not so, according to Republicans, who say they are fighting against federal overreach and accuse Democrats of attempting to tip the electoral scales in their favor.

“This effort by liberal Democrats to take power away from states to run elections is not about enfranchising voters – it’s about shifting power to the advantage of the liberal Democratic agenda,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently tweeted.

Amid the acrimony and on the eve of what seems sure to be a more somber Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, Anderson said she is sure the fight for voting rights — and civil rights more broadly — will continue.

“We have an incredibly engaged civil society that is fighting for this democracy,” she said. “We have folks who are litigating against these voter suppression laws. We have folks who are registering folks to vote jumping through all of the hurdles. We have folks who are providing citizenship training school. … It is that civil society that has been just absolutely instrumental in fighting for American democracy.” 

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US Marks Birthday of Civil Rights Icon as Voting Rights, Racial Justice Remain Central to Country’s Politics

As the United States observes Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, recognizing the Black American pastor internationally known as a symbol for civil rights, Laurel Bowman reports on how social justice issues continue to play a central role in U.S. politics.

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Outpouring of Grief as Victims of Bronx Fire Laid to Rest 

A Bronx community gathered Sunday to pay its final respects to perished loved ones, a week after a fire filled a high-rise apartment building with thick, suffocating smoke that killed 17 people, including eight children. 

The mass funeral capped a week of prayers and mourning within a close-knit community hailing from West Africa, most with connections to the tiny country of Gambia. 

Amid the mourning, there was also frustration and anger as family, friends and neighbors of the dead tried to make sense of the tragedy. 

“This is a sad situation. But everything comes from God. Tragedies always happen, we just thank Allah that we can all come together,” said Haji Dukuray, the uncle of Haja Dukuray, who died with three of her children and her husband. 

The dead ranged in age from 2 to 50. Entire families were killed, including a family of five. Others would leave behind orphaned children. 

There were 15 caskets in all that lined the front of the prayer hall. They ranged in size — some no bigger than small coffee tables, containing the bodies of the youngest souls who died.

“One week they were with us … now they’re gone,” said Musa Kabba, the imam at the Masjid-Ur-Rahmah mosque, where many of the deceased had prayed. 

Earlier in the week, burial services were held for two children at a mosque in Harlem. 

After Sunday’s services in New York City, 11 caskets were to be transported to a cemetery in New Jersey for burial. Four of the victims were expected to be repatriated to Gambia, as requested by their families, a Gambian government official attending the service said. 

All week, family members had been anxious to lay their loved ones to rest to honor Islamic tradition, which calls for burial as soon after death as possible. But complications over identifying the victims delayed their release to funeral homes.

All of the dead collapsed and died after being overcome by smoke while trying to descend down the stairway, which acted as a flue for the heavy smoke. 

The funeral was held at the Islamic Cultural Center, 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the 19-story apartment building where New York City’s deadliest fire in three decades unfolded. 

Parts of the service was delivered in Soninke, a language spoken in Gambia and other parts of West Africa. 

Hundreds filled the mosque and many hundreds more filled tents outside or huddled in the cold to pay their respects. The services were beamed onto jumbo screens outside and in other rooms of the mosque. 

Because of the magnitude of the tragedy, funeral organizers insisted on a public funeral to bring attention to the plight of immigrant families across New York City. 

“There’s outcry. There’s injustice. There’s neglect,” said Sheikh Musa Drammeh, who was among those leading the response to the tragedy, 

Officials blamed a faulty space heater in a third-floor apartment for the blaze, which spewed plumes of suffocating smoke that quickly rose through the stairwell of the 19-story building. 

Some residents said space heaters were sometimes needed to supplement the building’s heat and that repairs weren’t always timely. 

“We want the world to know that they died because they lived in the Bronx,” Drammeh asserted. “If they lived in midtown Manhattan, they would not have died. Why? Because they wouldn’t need to use space heaters. This is a public outcry. Therefore, there has to be responsibility from the elected officials to change the conditions that causes death every single day.” 

New York City Mayor Eric Adams, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin, as well as two officials representing the Gambian government, attended the funeral services. 

“When tragedies occur, we come together,” Schumer said. 

“I am here to express the pain all New Yorkers are experiencing,” Adams later added. 

New York Attorney General Letitia James vowed to investigate, saying “there were conditions in that building that should have been corrected.” 

The investigation into the fire is ongoing. 

Much of the focus centers on the catastrophic spread of the smoke from the apartment. The fire itself was contained to one unit and an adjoining hallway, but investigators said the door to the apartment and a stairway door many floors up had been left open, creating a flue that allowed smoke to quickly spread throughout the building. 

New York City fire codes generally require apartment doors at larger apartment developments to be spring-loaded and slam shut automatically. 

In the wake of the deaths, a coalition of officials, including federal, state and city lawmakers announced a legislative agenda they hoped would stiffen fire codes and building standards to prevent similar tragedies from happening. 

The proposals range from requiring space heaters to automatically shut off and mandating that federally funded apartment projects install self-closing doors on units and stairwells that would have to be inspected on a monthly basis. 

As families bid farewell to their loved ones, others remained in hospitals, some in serious condition, because of smoke inhalation. 

Fundraisers have collected nearly $400,000 thus far. The Mayor’s Fund, Bank of America and other groups said 118 families displaced by the fire would each get $2,250 in aid. 

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US Surgeon General: ‘Tough Few Weeks’ Ahead Combating Omicron

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy Sunday said, “It’s going to be a tough few weeks” for the United States in confronting the omicron variant of the coronavirus. 

“The cases numbers are high, hospitals are struggling,” Murthy told ABC’s “This Week” show. 

But he also voiced optimism, saying, “We’re going to get through this. We’re pulling out the stops on testing,” soon making test kits available to Americans who want them. 

He described as “very disappointing” and a “setback for public health” a recent Supreme Court decision blocking President Joe Biden’s mandate that 84 million workers at large businesses be vaccinated or tested frequently. The court, however, let stand an order requiring 17 million health care workers to be inoculated against the infection. 

Murthy said the Biden administration is still “encouraging companies to impose mandates” on their workers, as many companies have done so while others have decided otherwise. The Supreme Court order does not block individual companies from ordering such mandates, although some Republican state governors have been trying to stop any mandates from taking effect in their states. 

“One of the lessons we’ve learned about vaccines is that they are working,” Murthy said, while acknowledging that even those who have been fully vaccinated and received a booster shot still stand about a 20% chance of being infected with the omicron strain. 

Overall, the U.S. is currently recording about 800,000 new coronavirus cases a day and nearly 2,000 deaths, although there are early indications that the surge in omicron cases has reached a peak in some parts of the country and leveled off. 

Still, the number of new cases has, as Murthy said, overwhelmed hospitals in some states. Biden last week dispatched military medical personnel to six of the country’s 50 states to assist health care workers at hospitals there. 

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Garbage and Recyclables Pile Up as Omicron Takes its Toll

The omicron variant is sickening so many sanitation workers around the U.S. that some cities have had to delay or suspend garbage or recycling pickup, angering residents shocked that governments can’t perform this most basic of functions.

The slowdowns have caused recycling bins full of Christmas gift boxes and wrapping paper to languish on Nashville curbs, trash bags to pile up on Philadelphia streets, and uncollected yard waste — grass clippings, leaves, branches — to block sidewalks in Atlanta.

“It’s just a shame,” said Madelyn Rubin, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, where officials have halted recycling.

“You know that they could find the money to do it if they wanted to,” she said. “If it was a business that wanted to come in here, they would dump money in to make it happen.”

Cities including Atlanta, Nashville and Louisville are so shorthanded they have temporarily stopped collecting things like recyclable bottles, cans, paper and plastic, yard waste or oversized junk to focus on the grosser, smellier stuff. The delays are more than annoyance to residents, creating problems such as clogged storm drains and blocked sidewalks.

Nashville City Council member Freddie O’Connell was just as surprised as his constituents when he received notice before Christmas that the city was halting curbside recycling.

“I was just stunned there wasn’t an alternative or a back-up plan,” he said. “No hot line for people who are mobility impaired or don’t have reliable access to a car” to carry their recyclables to a central drop-off site.

“It feels like a failure of governance,” he added.

The garbage crisis is actually the third of the pandemic. The first happened in the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 took hold in the U.S. Problems arose again as the delta variant spiked over the summer.

The Solid Waste Association of North America warned government officials and trash haulers in December to “plan now for staffing shortages.”

 

The highly contagious variant hit just when Americans were generating a lot of trash — over the Christmas holidays. Combine that with a relatively low vaccination level among front-line sanitation workers and you have a “perfect storm for delayed collection,” the association’s executive director, David Biderman, said this week.

In some communities, up to a quarter of the waste-collection workforce is calling in sick, Biderman said.

Garbage collection has become just another of the many basic services disrupted by omicron. Around the U.S., teachers, firefighters, police officers and transit workers have been out sick in large numbers.

“We’re getting calls, emails, everything. People are understandably frustrated,” said Atlanta City Council member Liliana Bakhtiari.

Atlanta officials said Monday that because of the worker shortage, recycling and yard waste will be picked up “as staffing allows.”

Los Angeles said delays in the collection of recyclables could continue through the month.

In Louisville, Kentucky, sanitation workers stopped picking up yard waste in early January until further notice. Residents can drop off branches and clippings at Christmas tree collection sites.

New York City, which boasts the largest municipal sanitation force in the world, had around 2,000 of its 7,000 workers out because of the latest round of the coronavirus, but the rest are working long hours to clear a backlog of waste. They city has not suspended any services.

Harry Nespoli, president of the union local representing the city’s sanitation workers, said some are coming back after quarantining, while others are testing positive for the virus: “Right now it’s a swinging door.”

In Philadelphia, sometimes called Filthadelphia because of the condition of its streets, around 10% to 15% of the 900-person sanitation workforce is out on any given day, leading to delays in waste collection, according to Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams.

“When people are out, we can’t just hire to replace them,” he said. “We have to give them time to get well.”

To keep the trash from piling up, some municipalities are hiring temporary workers or contracting with private haulers. Some are offering signing or retention bonuses or pay raises.

Chattanooga, Tennessee, increased starting wages for drivers by more than 40%, from just over $31,500 to $45,000.

That allowed the city to restore recycling collection in November after halting it in July and continue routine pickups despite the omicron surge, said spokesperson Mary Beth Ikard.

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