Before the pandemic hit in March, things were looking up for workers in New York City’s private sanitation industry.
Last fall, city officials finally approved a long-awaited zone plan to bring order to sometimes chaotic private carting. The change also offered laborers with garbage companies that zigzag through city streets bolstered workplace protections.
“You wait for so long and you fight for so long for something,” said Doug Washington, an employee of Royal Waste, a Queens-based private trash hauler.
“And then boom. It’s like a regression again,” said Washington, 42.
The coronavirus shutdowns have obliterated carting companies’ customers — from closed catering halls to offices that are seeing just a fraction of their workers show up.
New York City’s Department of Sanitation only handles trash collection for households and government institutions as well as street corner collection. Everything else, including waste from restaurants, stores and offices, gets hauled away by private carters.
The roughly 2,600 workers are largely union employees, and earn $49,000 a year to $70,000 with overtime, a 2016 study commissioned by the city found.
But COVID removed any job security that once might have seemed in reach.
Business Takes Pandemic Plunge
Sanitation put the rollout of 20 commercial waste zones on hold, to allow the roughly 90 firms in the private carting industry to “recover and stabilize.”
Their business plummeted by as much as 70% when the COVID-19 outbreak began to take hold in New York, said Belinda Mager, Department of Sanitation spokesperson. Union leaders estimate that about half of workers are currently unemployed.
Yet at the height of the spring COVID wave, garbage collectors got classified as “essential workers” by the state — putting them at high risk of exposure.
Washington was among those quickly ensnared by the virus.
On a Saturday in late March, he woke up in the pre-dawn hours to start getting ready for his 6 a.m. shift where he delivers large dumpsters to businesses or homeowners. Washington’s fiance remarked that he was feeling warm.
In the bathroom of his Queens home, Washington realized he couldn’t clear his throat and his nasal passages felt stuffy. He stayed home just in case.
By Sunday morning, COVID-19 had made Washington so weak that he “couldn’t get up to go nowhere.” He quarantined for the required 14 days, but “wasn’t getting any better.”
Washington took a three-month leave to recover. When he went back to work just after July 4, Washington’s job and the private sanitation industry had changed.
Prior to the pandemic, he would work six days a week and sometimes up to 10 hours a day, earning overtime. Today, he earns just his base pay, which he declined to disclose.
“Only 40 hours a week, which hurts. Hurts a lot. Hurts tremendously,” he said.
“It adds up to where you have to take precautions on how you spend your money and what you do with your money, especially when it comes to your family.”
Washington is seeing $300 to $400 less in his paycheck each week, stung especially hard by fewer pickups at airports, formerly busy stops on his routes.
Once-fertile Manhattan has emptied of much of its activity with many office workers doing their jobs from home. Last week, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli warned that half of the borough’s restaurants — major carting industry customers — may not survive.
Washington at least has kept his job.
At one point, Royal Waste laid off 60 to 70 drivers, according to Washington. It has since rehired about 50 of them, he said. Royal Waste received up to $10 million in federal Paycheck Protection Program aid for 401 employees, federal records show.
Royal Waste did not respond to requests for comment.
The pandemic and the subsequent decrease in commercial trash pickups has spurred massive layoffs throughout the private carting industry, said Sean Campbell, the president of the Teamsters Local Union 813, which represents some workers.
“This pandemic has gotten to the best of us. I don’t care who you are, what your financial status was or is, if you’re in need you’re in need, you know?” Campbell told THE CITY on a recent Saturday morning outside the union’s offices in Long Island City.
Local 813 was hosting its second relief event for workers since August, distributing boxes of food, containing hot dogs, milk, and yogurt, along with $100 gift cards provided by ALIGN NY, an environmental and labor nonprofit organization.
“None of us [had] foreseen this coming. We have families that rely upon us and one day everything was going along well — you’re paying your mortgage, you’re paying your car. You’re able to provide and put groceries on the table, and with the flick of a switch all of that came to a halt,” Campbell added.
Layoffs Instead of Customers
Manhattan had largely been the focus of trash collection for Filco Carting, which before the outbreak serviced 5,000 customers throughout the city each night, said Josh Eisenstein, director of community outreach at the Brooklyn-based waste company.
But months later, nearly half of Filco’s Manhattan customers still haven’t returned.
“Due to the decrease of customers and waste, we did have to downsize somewhat,” Eisenstein said.
At the height of the lockdown, Filco laid off between 30% and 40% of its 65 employees. Slowly — and after receiving up to $2 million in PPP aid — the company has brought back some workers, but the company is still not at full capacity, Eisenstein said.
A former employee of one of the city’s largest waste companies, said the recycling outfit he worked for began laying workers off on a weekly basis starting in April until “the whole company is pretty much laid off.”
As restrictions imposed by the pandemic slowly began to lift in the late spring and into the summer, trash collection began to pick up again.
“I’ve seen a couple of the trucks out there but I was never called back to work,” said the former employee, who did not want to be named for fear of retaliation.
Black and Latino workers account for more than 60% of the private carting workforce, a ProPublica investigation noted. The news outlet found that roughly one-third of private waste employees are not in a union and companies routinely hire immigrants for cheap labor under abhorrent conditions.
‘Essential’ Yet Not
Even while losing much of their livelihood, private sanitation laborers toiled under the “essential worker” label at the height of the pandemic, even as other industries closed their doors.
Hundreds of private sanitation workers contracted COVID-19, according to union officials.
Even before the pandemic hit New York, refuse collection was among one of the most dangerous occupations in the country — far more hazardous than the jobs of police officers, firefighters or construction workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We’ve had hundreds of members come down” with the virus, said Campbell. “We had just about entire shops at some point wiped out with the pandemic.”
The city’s Sanitation Department hasn’t been immune. So far 663 department employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and eight have died.
Black and Latino workers are disproportionately represented in essential services and are more likely to be exposed to the virus because of close contact with the public and other workers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
City officials have noted this has likely contributed to the higher death rate among Black and Latino city residents, who have died at twice the rate as white and Asian New Yorkers.
It’s difficult to maintain six feet of distance inside of a truck cabin, but the vehicles are typically limited to two people — driver and passenger — making it less of a concern than in waste and recycling warehouses, where dozens of workers congregate and work closely together, Campbell explained.
“It’s pretty hard to social distance when you have to work to load something or unload something,” he said.
‘One Loss is Too Many’
Local 813 lost three sanitation workers from the virus.
“To me, one loss is too many,” Campbell told THE CITY.
At Filco, trucks are sanitized and at the end of each route and before the next route begins, said Eisenstein. Employees also wear latex gloves underneath their traditional leather gloves to prevent contact with debris.
As a roughly 20-year veteran of the carting business, Washington notices the increased strain on workers and the industry.
“Not coming home with that same pay, and maybe someone in your home is not even working or is getting... there’s a lot of tension,” he said.
“Although it is slow work, I believe the money is still flowing and as much as we have to take a cut, I believe the companies should take into [consideration] that you can’t keep cutting on the lower end if you don’t make cuts on the high end.”