Gilliam County’s largest employer, Waste Management, made a bold commitment in the early days of the COVID pandemic: to keep everyone employed. That pledge was not just for the Columbia Ridge and Chemical Waste Management sites that are located outside of Arlington and where 220 people work. It was for all Waste Management employees – the more than 44,000 who work for the Texas-based company around the country.
Amazingly, not only has Waste Management retained their employees at Columbia Ridge eight months into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, but they have also hired new members to join their team and managed turnover.
The company’s perseverance through 2020 has been a stabilizing force in Gilliam County, where the unemployment rate is virtually unchanged from pre-COVID levels and holds firm at 5.1%.
Without terminations, layoffs or reduced hours due to the pandemic, Waste Management employees were able to provide for their families, maintain health insurance and exude a sense of normalcy that was sorely needed as unemployment rates hit record highs in the spring and summer.
After the coronavirus landed in the United States, life as we knew it was upended. So too was the customer base for Waste Management.
As states instituted stay-at-home orders, commercial and industrial waste nearly ground to a halt. Almost overnight, Waste Management found itself needing to recast schedules and assignments for employees and equipment, improve operational efficiencies and more proactively manage costs.
“The challenge was immediate and intense in areas where our teams collect from businesses,” said Jackie Lang who is the Senior Area Manager for the Pacific Northwest. “Think about all the businesses that moved employees to home offices, and all the restaurants and schools that closed or reduced services.”
Many of Waste Management’s commercial and industrial customers no longer needed the same levels of service. The urban areas of Portland and Seattle, which contribute a significant amount of the waste that is deposited at Columbia Ridge, had some of the strictest lockdowns in the nation.
Instead of starting layoffs, which many companies began to do in April, Waste Management’s senior leadership leaned on the company’s expertise in logistics to meet the changing needs of its customers in this new era.
Although hotels, bars and restaurants were closed, Waste Management knew that people needed their services more than ever. In fact, the amount of residential recycling and garbage increased in some parts of the country as people worked and schooled from home, shopped online and tackled home improvement projects.
Waste Management’s pivot to residential customers might seem like a no brainer but from a logistics standpoint it was an enormous undertaking.
Jackie Lang says that Waste Management teams moved quickly to understand the challenges. “All these changes impacted how we schedule drivers and route trucks,” Lang said. “It has been a monumental challenge to keep pace and adapt, to reschedule drivers and reroute trucks in different ways, again and again.”
Decades of investment in logistics has been the guiding light for the company in these trying times. As changing demands for waste collection emerged, the company shifted workers to meet new needs on the collection and the post collection side of the business.
As routes and schedules were altered for drivers, so too were they altered at the disposal site. As shipments came by truck and by rail at new times, workers on the post-collection side at the Columbia Ridge site also had to adjust their hours and schedules.
All of this unfolded as Oregon’s social distancing and sanitation protocols were introduced and then changed several times over.
Incredibly, Waste Management is emerging from 2020 stronger than ever and their commitment to the community has only grown this year.
In August, Waste Management made an annual commitment of $12,500 to the Condon and Arlington Chambers of Commerce for five years. Local leaders also continued to champion the county fair and support local youth with college scholarships. Looking forward, the company has also advocated for improved housing in the county so that more of their employees will be engrained in the community.
In the midst of adversity, the company has shown leadership and a commitment to the people and institutions of Gilliam County. Doing so in the worst of times speaks volumes.