Trash haulers brace for drastic hit, but soldier on amid coronavirus

Garbage bags stacked | Getty

As the effects of a disused urban economy radiate across the city, the fleet of garbage trucks picking up commercial garbage prepares for a great success.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has banned eating in bars and restaurants and ordered cinemas, concert halls and arenas to close their doors as the coronavirus spreads across the city, which means significantly less commercial waste is piling up on the sidewalks.

While fewer trash bags on the street may seem like a perk to New Yorkers, it is a major source of concern for industry insiders and city officials fearful that freight forwarders will be downgrading workers or closing due to lack of stores.

A Manhattan-based carter said his customer portfolio has fallen 30 percent – and more drastic cuts are expected. Another executive at a large waste company said 300 customers had already ceased service this week, up from just 25 suspensions last Friday. He believes that number will soon rise to 1,000.

“It’s worrying,” said Ron Bergamini, executive vice president of Interstate Waste Services, the parent company of Action Carting, one of the city’s largest privately owned karting companies. Four or five, it gets more disruptive. “

Hygiene and Corporate Integrity Commission officials discussed the impact of the coronavirus on the city’s intricate waste collection system at their regular meeting last week. One of their concerns is the success that private freight forwarders could suffer as waste volumes “take off from a cliff,” a sanitary officer told POLITICO.

However, they also monitor all other factors that change the size of the workforce and that may affect residential or business service, including “sickness cases”. Teamsters Local 813 and Local 108, two unions that represent municipal and private waste workers, have provisions in their collective agreements that allow them to stop working in a state of emergency, the official said.

To rally the troops, the commissioners of both agencies sent a letter to the garbage unions, stressing that plumbing workers are “essential employees who are doing a critical public service for the city in this time of crisis”.

“The city must and will come together to make sure we address this crisis effectively,” the letter said. “In the coming weeks, private plumbing workers will play an important role in ensuring the health and safety of all New Yorkers.”

But plumbing workers have given no indication that they want to stop providing services while they are healthy and able, the official added.

Douglas Washington, a driver for Royal Waste, said he would work through a wage cut if he had to to ensure garbage collection for the many businesses that still depend on consistent service, including hospitals that operate around the clock.

“What we do is important, I think, because if the garbage is not picked up there is more disease and more infestation,” he said. “I don’t want to see this – because it will change the way people start to think.”

De Blasio has also highlighted the vital role plumbing workers play when the city grapples with a pandemic.

“Our plumbing workers have been great – you don’t want to cancel basic services if you don’t have to,” de Blasio said recently on Good Day New York. “We have to protect the people, keep the city clean.”

To that end, freight forwarders across the city have put in place certain precautions to reduce the chances of contracting the virus.

Washington said he started his shift at 6 a.m. Tuesday by spraying his truck with the company’s industrial cleaners. He no longer checks in with a hand scanner, but logs in individually under a tent that the company recently set up – just like the new policy at Royal Waste.

The coronavirus has created a new normal for workers who are used to fighting their share of dirt and pathogens.

“When you’re a garbage collector, you think you’re almost like a superman, machismo, I think – because I’ve been dealing with toxic waste and, you know, fumes and toxic dust for years,” Washington said. “But I would like to say that to this day I have worn my sterile gloves and mask.”

Despite headwinds, the industry has so far continued normally. However, insiders warn that this could change depending on the length of the pandemic. De Blasio has warned that much of the city’s business life could be closed until September.

Some in the industry have been pushing for the city to make drastic changes to better adapt to the conditions ahead. They are calling for the recycling rules to be suspended and for a delay in the city’s proposed request to introduce a new waste management system.

Neither of them is currently on the table, according to plumbing officials.

“We hope it’s a passing, big ugly hiccup and on the other hand, there is a very quick recovery,” said Mike Hellstrom, Secretary and Treasurer of Laborers Local 108. “We’ll have to wait and see the location.” If it is until August I would say call me back in May and I will tell you how many people have been laid off. “

Hellstrom added that major freight forwarders have talked about reducing labor hours when the volume of waste decreases.

While the private sector is temporarily losing customers, others expect the workload for plumbing workers on the residential side to increase as more people stay home and produce waste throughout the day.

“We are ready, willing and able to help in any way we can to identify the potential for additional waste,” said Sean Campbell, President of Teamsters Local 813.

There are also concerns about what the lack of business could mean for workers who do not have OSH. Many New Yorkers who collect rubbish for commercial companies in the middle of the night are represented by “bogus unions”.

“Now is exactly the time we must fight to ensure that there is justice and that private sector waste workers have the same protection as public waste workers in terms of sick leave, family leave, retirement and, obviously, access to health care and benefits” said Justin Wood, director of organization and strategic research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, who advocated the new waste management model.

City officials are closely monitoring the situation, and so far no freight forwarders have said they are going out of business because of the pandemic.

“BIC will continue to provide regular updates to the companies we regulate on resources and information available from the city to help them safely provide an essential service to the City of New York during this difficult time,” Commissioner Noah Genel said in a statement.

The city is also taking its own precautions to ensure workers stay healthy as they continue their travels in public.

The Department of Sanitation has started shifts at 5 a.m. to avoid crowds and equip garages with additional disinfectant materials, Commissioner Kathryn Garcia said in a statement. Workers were also advised to wash their hands frequently and wipe all surfaces before and after their shift.

“Given the nature of our job, urban plumbing workers are trained to practice good hygiene and must wear gloves and appropriate work equipment when handling trash and collecting recycling gloves,” she said.

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