What It’s Like Now: Tom Coffman, WCA trash representative and baseball book author

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re shifting our Shawnee Mission Faces to focus on folks in roles that have been profoundly effected by the virus and response: What life is like now with social distancing, a stay-at-home mandate and the need for essential workers.

While most segments of the economy shuddered to a halt during the start of the COVID-19 shutdown, many essential workers continued business, though not as usual. Though trash and recycling pickup services often go unnoticed, these companies were no exception. For Tom Coffman, a municipal representative with WCA, a trash/recycling pickup company that serves parts of Johnson County, things have certainly changed for his fellow coworkers working their pickup routes. A lifelong baseball and Royals fan, Coffman is close to publishing a book he co-authored with a friend, Pat O’Neill of Kansas City, Missouri, a biography of Ted Sullivan, an Irish-American immigrant and one of the first people to organize minor league baseball. Coffman lives in Mission with his wife, Patti Peters, and their dog, Mick, and two cats, Chopper and Frank. Tom and Patti have a son who lives with his wife in Houston.

Our perfect world is people put their stuff out on their trash day, they leave the house, they come home at night, it’s gone, they don’t even think about it. They don’t think about us, and we’re just part of the atmosphere, that’s fine.

You might not see us, and we’re glad you don’t see us, and we’re glad that our essential service is something that you don’t have to worry about, but our job’s been a lot harder. But we don’t make a big deal out of it. We just do our job and go forward.

Since the scale of this pandemic became apparent, and then particularly since the stay-at-home order and the shutdown orders became in effect, all of a sudden we had 300-plus WCA employees, and we’re having the same concerns and anxieties as everybody else. Like what’s this mean? What are we going to do? How are we going to do our job?

Trash still has to get picked up, doesn’t it? How do we do that safely, and then go home and keep our families safe?

We wanted to remain committed to keeping an uninterrupted service if we could, and we’ve been able to do that, and we’re actually pretty proud of that.

But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been challenging, it hasn’t been stressful and there hasn’t been some anxiety associated with it. But the company, from the very beginning, from the first minute, stressed employee safety. So they gave us all the tools we needed, and that means the ability and the equipment you needed to work from home for people who could, and then the eye protection, the gloves, the hand sanitizer, the masks, whatever people in the field needed so they can work safely and complete their daily routes and be safe when they get home.

At least initially, we were just taking whatever was out, and that made the days a lot longer, and in the initial weeks… you didn’t know. I mean, there was talk that you’re handling this stuff, and perhaps that could enhance your likeliness of getting infected. But they’re doing it anyway because there’s a lot of stuff outside the cart that you just grab and go.

It’s an individual thing, how tolerant are you of risk. The work is harder, and there’s more anxiety around all of that work, that’s for sure. But again, those guys step up, and whatever uncertainty or anxiety they deal with, they put it aside and they do their job.

They don’t get to congregate together like they always did. It used to be they’d meet in a group in the morning and receive their route sheets and and whatever information they needed for that day. Now they just go straight to their trucks and receive that individually from the supervisor, and then they go out and work their routes safely and completely.

That continues to be the case, and it’s going to be for the foreseeable future. I mean, you’re used to doing your job with your guys and a certain level of camaraderie, and that’s not really there anymore. You can’t make those personal connections as readily as you used to be able to.

And we have all of our dispatchers and customer service people, right? Call volumes are way up, residential trash volumes are way up with everybody at home. But they’ve got kids at home they’re supposed to home school, and now they’re not in summer programs. Sometimes voicemail boxes get filled and you’ve got way more emails to return than you’re used to, and then people get frustrated.

But still, they work as a team, and they generally have pretty good spirits. They haven’t gotten down yet. And so I really think that’s a testament to their professionalism. We’re proud of them, and we’re really proud of the guys who are out in the field on the routes, because they’re dealing with these greater volumes.

And every once in a while, something happens. Not long ago, guys were running a residential route, and there were two little boys standing at the end of their driveway waiting for them. These little fellas had some baked goods and drinks for them and told them how much they appreciated them coming out, being an essential service and all that. These were guys like 6 and 8 years old.

Everybody’s seen the video of it now, in the company, and everybody’s like that’s really cool, it gives everybody a little bump. It just reminds you that people appreciate it, so that helps.