Trashed: Inside the Deadly World of Private Garbage Collection

by Kiera Feldman, from ProPublica

Shortly before 5 a.m. on a recent November night, a garbage truck with a New York Yankees decal on the side sped through a red light on an empty street in the Bronx. The two workers aboard were running late. Before long, they would start getting calls from their boss. “Where are you on the route? Hurry up, it shouldn’t take this long.” Theirs was one of 133 garbage trucks owned by Action Carting, the largest waste company in New York City, which picks up the garbage and recycling from 16,700 businesses.

Going 20 miles per hour above the city’s 25 mph limit, the Action truck ran another red light with a worker, called a “helper,” hanging off the back. Just a few miles away the week before, another man had died in the middle of the night beneath the wheels of another company’s garbage truck. The Action truck began driving on the wrong side of the road in preparation for the next stop. The workers were racing to pick up as much garbage as possible before dawn arrived and the streets filled with slow traffic. “This route should take you twelve hours,” the boss often told them. “It shouldn’t take you fourteen hours.”

Working 10- to 14-hour days, six days per week, means that no one is ever anything close to rested. The company holds monthly safety meetings and plays videos, taken by cameras installed inside the trucks, of Action drivers falling asleep at the wheel. “You’re showing us videos of guys being fatigued, guys falling asleep,” a driver told me. (All Action employees asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation.) “But you aren’t doing anything about it.”

“In the history of the company I am sure there have been times where supervisors have inappropriately rushed people,” said Action Carting CEO Ron Bergamini. “They shouldn’t be, and they’d be fired if they ever told people to run red lights or speed. But you have to find the balance between efficiency and safety, and that’s a struggle we work on every day. But you cannot turn around and say, ‘Hey just take your time, go as long as you want.’” He pointed out that workers can anonymously report concerns to a safety hotline. As to the questions of overwork and driver fatigue, Bergamini responded, “That’s a struggle that the whole industry has — of getting people to work less.”

In the universe of New York’s garbage industry, Action is considered a company that takes the high road. A union shop, it offers starting pay of about $16 per hour for helpers and $23 for drivers, far more than many other companies. And unlike some other companies, Action provides high-visibility gear and conducts safety meetings. But since 2008, the company’s trucks have killed five pedestrians or cyclists.

In New York City overall, private sanitation trucks killed seven people in 2017. By contrast, city municipal sanitation trucks haven’t caused a fatality since 2014.

Pedestrians aren’t the only casualties, and Action isn’t the only company involved in fatalities. Waste and recycling work is the fifth most fatal job in America — far more deadly than serving as a police officer or a firefighter. Loggers have the highest fatality rate, followed by fishing workers, aircraft pilots and roofers. From the collection out on garbage trucks, to the processing at transfer stations and recycling centers, to the dumping at landfills, the waste industry averages about one worker fatality a week. Nationally, in 2016, 82 percent of waste-worker deaths occurred in the private sector.

There are two vastly different worlds of garbage in New York City: day and night. By day, 7,200 uniformed municipal workers from the city’s Department of Sanitation go door-to-door, collecting the residential trash. Like postal workers, they tend to follow compact routes. They work eight-hour days with time-and-a-half for overtime and snow removal and double-time for Sundays. With a median base pay of $69,000 plus health care, a pension, almost four weeks of paid vacation and unlimited sick days, the Department of Sanitation workforce is overwhelmingly full time and unionized. It’s also 55 percent white, and 91 percent male.

But come nightfall, an army of private garbage trucks from more than 250 sanitation companies zigzag across town in ad hoc fashion, carting away the trash and recycling from every business — every bodega, restaurant and office building in the five boroughs. Those private carters remove more than half of the city’s total waste.

Since each business chooses its own carter, a dozen garbage trucks might converge on a single block over the course of a night. In one five-block stretch near Rockefeller Center, for example, 27 garbage companies stop at 86 businesses, according to an analysis of city data by ProPublica and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. Plenty of other U.S. cities split trash collection along the same lines — residential waste on the municipal side, commercial waste on the private side — but New York is singular in the scale of private collection operations.

Many waste companies pay workers a flat fee, some as little as $80 a shift, no matter the hours, with no health benefits, overtime pay or retirement plans. The practice of employing helpers off the books is widespread, according to a 2016 report by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. The workforce is more than 60 percent minority, and more than half of Latino workers and about a third of black workers earn less than $35,000 annually. Many of these jobs are non-union, and while the drivers tend to be full-time employees, the helpers are often contract workers with unstable hours — some scrambling to work enough to feed their families, others clocking 18-hour or longer days. A May 2016 study by the nonprofit New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health found that the underpayment or nonpayment of wages is “rampant in the commercial waste industry.”

Five Star Carting, the third biggest garbage company in New York City, with 10,400 customers, has received numerous citations from the New York State Department of Labor for underpayment or nonpayment of wages. In 2015, after two Five Star workers testified at a City Council hearing about their long hours, low pay and unsafe work conditions, they were fired. (They were later reinstated but only after labor advocates and City Council members organized a rally outside of Five Star’s headquarters.) Five Star declined to respond to detailed questions.

Private garbage trucks are ubiquitous on New York’s streets after dark, yet the human effort involved remains largely invisible to most people. To travel deep into the world of New York’s midnight trash collection is to enter a realm where people often toil in grave danger for low pay. Those perils are easy to miss in the roar of a diesel engine, the rush of a giant truck and a waft of scent from a bag we’re all happy to see somebody else remove…

[read more here]

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