The Department of Sanitation is scooping up city jobs left and right.

The agency known as “New York’s Strongest” is expanding again under Commissioner Jessica Tisch, now taking on the cleaning of highways — a job long held by a different workforce at the Department of Transportation, whose members are not happy about being swept out.

The move comes shortly after the DSNY — which has not yet met the mayor’s new budget reduction goals — took over street vendor oversight from the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection and oversight of graffiti cleanup from the city’s Economic Development Corporation.

Sanitation reps say it is all part of Mayor Eric Adams broader commitment to “Get Stuff Clean” and that the initiative is still in its nascent stages. 

“There are explicitly no layoffs or attrition plans involved here,” said Sanitation spokesperson Josh Goodman, referring to the roles once held by other city workers. 

“DSNY is committed to delivering consistently clean public spaces that New Yorkers expect and deserve, and that’s all this is about — getting the job done for every part of the city,” Goodman added. 

But the unions representing the DOT staff previously tasked with these highway cleaning duties say their members do it cheaper, are more diverse and have years of specialized experience and training. 

“You’ve never seen a garbage truck set up cones on a highway,” said Local 983 President Joseph Puleo, who represents most of the DOT staff. “It’s out of their area.”

Those unions have asked the city’s Office of Labor Relations (OLR) to conduct a cost analysis of the switch. The unions said OLR was reluctant to do so; the agency did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. 

The starting pay for full-fledged highway repairers with the DOT is $47.58 an hour and they typically earn nearly $100,000about $95,000 a year, according to Puleo. 

Before becoming a full fledged highway repairer, people must work for three years as an assistant highway repairer. That job pays approximately $40,000 a year, according to Puleo. 

By contrast, the starting base pay of a sanitation worker is $40,622 per year. The salary goes up to $83,465 after five and a half years on the job — although many make at least $10,000 more per year as a productivity bonus for being on trucks. 

The highway repair jobs at DOT have long been a gateway to civil service roles for Black and brown New Yorkers in part because the entry level position does not require any college credits or work experience, according to Puleo and others familiar with the career path. 

“That’s another thing we are upset about,” Puleo said. “You are taking away from people of color an opportunity that they’d never have.”

Sanitation is a majority white male workforce, at 48% white, according to latest publicly available city records, from 2021.

During his campaign for mayor, Adams himself attended a rally by a group of Sanitation workers seeking pay and gender equity. At the time he cited a 2021 City Council report that revealed that non-Hispanic DSNY staffers earn $8,700 more than Latino workers, and Black and brown employees earn $7,600 less a year than white workers.

Departmental Favorites?

But as the mayor has called for cuts at all city agencies, Sanitation is one of two agencies that have not yet met their goals — hitting just 44% of its target, according to the Daily News. The NYPD is the only other agency that has not made the required cuts. 

DSNY’s Goodman noted that the city agency’s “Program to Eliminate the Gap” (PEG) for the fiscal year 2024 budget is still being reviewed. 

Kate Smart, a spokesperson for the mayor, said that Adams has made clean streets “essential to New York City’s recovery.

“Over the past year, DSNY has implemented a number of changes to work more efficiently, like changing when they pick up the trash to get more of it off the street faster and launching a curbside composting service in Queens that collected three times the material on average per district at less than a third of the cost of old programs,” the spokesperson said. 

Mayor Eric Adams and Sanitation Commissioner Jessica Tisch at the The Unisphere in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens, Aug. 8, 2022. Credit: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

As for the graffiti cleanup work, while the EDC used to manage workers from the nonprofit Doe Fund to do that work, DSNY since April 1 has handled supervision and other organizing of the cleanup, mostly originating from 311 complaints.

“For almost 20 years, New Yorkers would call 311 to report graffiti, but conditions weren’t always addressed in a timely manner because of a bureaucratic morass that Mayor Adams has committed to cleaning up,” Goodman said. 

Shuffling responsibilities between agencies is not unique to the Adams administration, noted Robert Linn, who served as the labor commissioner under Mayors Bill de Blasio and Ed Koch.

For example, the city’s Human Resources Administration under Steve Banks during the de Blasio administration pushed for the right to a lawyer for anyone in housing court and the increase in the number of those eligible for emergency rental assistance grants

Banks, who formerly headed The Legal Aid Society, was respected by de Blasio, Linn said. 

Adams must feel the same about Tisch, he added. 

“It’s directed at who is the commissioner at the time and that person’s interests and the view of the mayor towards that person,” Linn said. “So I assume Tisch is very well regarded. That’s why it’s moving in that direction.” 

Tisch most recently served as the commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (which has since been renamed the Office of Technology and Innovation). 

In her role as Sanitation commissioner, she has taken on the mayor’s campaign against rats and his campaign promise to clean up city streets.  

As Adams looks to cut from the city’s budget — calling earlier this month for another 4% reduction at every city agency — he’s pointed to the DSNY as a model. 

“We should bring Commissioner Tisch in from the Department of Sanitation to see how she has just really been probably the poster child of efficiency on how she has changed pickup times, placing out the garbage in different times, the success on some of the programs that she has initiated,” he said earlier this month at an unrelated press conference.

New Roles

The DSNY is in the midst of creating a highway-cleaning unit of several dozen staffers to take on that new role, according to Goodman. 

The agency last week took several “highway-grade” sweepers from the DOT fleet, he added, noting that they would be used in tandem with existing DSNY vehicles “in an example of highly productive interagency collaboration.”

Sanitation workers used to clean the highway on- and off-ramps, but that unit was cut as part of larger belt-tightening efforts when the pandemic hit in 2020. Mayor Adams reinstated the funding for that cleaning in last year’s budget. 

But they’ve never cleaned the actual highway lanes and don’t have the equipment to tackle that job. 

Department of Sanitation workers clean debris off the side of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Credit: Courtesy of the Department of Sanitation

The work has long been handled by a team of roughly 200 highway repairers and their supervisors who all report to the DOT.

Those staffers also “perform roadway maintenance and repair work with asphalt and concrete mixes,” according to a job description posted by the city’s Department of Citywide Administrative Services. 

They also lay sheet asphalt and other types of pavement, repair sidewalks, lay foundations, and remove snow, the job posting said. 

The DSNY contends that they are a better fit for the highway cleaning because they can singularly focus on that responsibility, according to a DSNY official involved in the process. 

But Puleo, who represents the highway repairers, said the DSNY staff has no idea how to keep themselves, and the public, safe while cleaning on busy traffic arteries. 

Sanitation sweepers go slower than highway traffic and could cause an accident, he cautioned. 

“If you don’t have the right safety procedures in place you could cause serious injury or death,” he said. 

Harry Nespoli, the president of the union representing Sanitation workers, said his concern is always safety for his members.

“This workforce, when the city needs us, we’ll always do it – until it becomes a risk,” he told THE CITY. 

“We’re doing it, our commissioner feels that she’s out to get those bags off the streets so it’s not an eyesore,” he added. “So we’re working with her trying to accomplish that.”