By Pete Daniels


Hyattsville residents benefit from a wide range of services provided by the city’s Department of Public Works (DPW), including trash and compost pickup, and snow and ice removal. If a rare lapse occurs, residents tend to notice, as DPW Director Lesley Riddle experienced late last year, when the department was forced to temporarily curtail leaf collection due to COVID-19-related staff shortages. At first, the department received “some nasty emails,” according to Riddle, but as word got out about the cause of the uncollected leaves, community reaction turned overwhelmingly positive. “They love us, and we love them,” she told the Hyattsville Life & Times during a recent interview.


Back in early February 2020, in response to the threat of the pandemic, DPW began holding virtual meetings and separating staff into smaller working teams. Compliance was good, according to Riddle, who laughed as she talked about staff overhearing a colleague singing “Happy Birthday” while hand-washing, per the department’s guidance (a tip aimed at ensuring hand-washing lasts long enough to kill germs). Given the rate of COVID-19 infection in Prince George’s County, however, Riddle said, “We were just waiting for the other foot to drop,” adding that she was surprised that the department went as long as it did without a single case.


The first COVID-19 case at the DPW was discovered in early December 2020, after an employee reported not feeling well. That person stayed home and subsequently tested positive. Shortly thereafter, a second employee, who worked on the same truck as the first, also tested positive. In all, 10 employees, mostly in the solid waste division, were required to quarantine for at least two weeks after the department became aware of the first infection.  


At the end of January, another staff member tested positive, and six employees had to quarantine.  


Employees are required to have two negative tests before returning to work.


“It was nerve-racking,” said Riddle, who emphasized that the department tried to be as “kind and nonreactive as possible” in response to staff illnesses.


At full strength, the solid waste division consists of 20 employees, all of whom work in the field, with the exception of their superintendent. The significant staffing shortage during the first quarantine period forced the department to prioritize trash pickup for public health reasons. In response to staff concerns, the DPW tabled their normal practice of taking on temporary employees to help with leaf collection. 


The positive COVID-19 cases also prompted the DPW to require office staff to work remotely if they were not doing so already. Indoor bathroom use was suspended, with employees instead using a portable toilet placed on the back of a trailer. A subcontractor helped get leaf collection back on track in December.


Asked if the DPW could have done anything to prevent the COVID-19 outbreak, Riddle said the office felt good about their protocols. The department also took time to discuss with employees how to be safe at home. Riddle added that she is always looking for ways to make staff feel comfortable about asking the city for assistance, including time off to provide childcare or assistance accessing mental health services.


As of press time, all of the DPW employees who were impacted by the initial COVID-19 outbreak are back on the job. Another DPW employee tested positive a few weeks ago, but no subsequent infections have been identified. “We’re out of the woods for now,” said Riddle.


DPW employees are part of phase 1C in the county vaccination schedule and, as of presstime, are not yet eligible to receive vaccinations through the county health department, though they can pre-register. Riddle said the DPW is having conversations with employees about vaccine safety.


When asked if the volume of the city’s solid waste during the pandemic had increased, Riddle burst out laughing. By way of example, Riddle said in 2019, the city collected 40 tons of trash during Mary Prangley Clean-up Day, a bulk trash collection event named after Hyattsville’s first female mayor. During the same event in 2020, the city collected 140 tons of trash. “It was crazy,” Riddle said. “It was absolutely crazy.” 


She described the last year as all-hands-on-deck, with DPW employees normally tasked with street maintenance and park maintenance pitching in to handle the massive increase in solid waste.