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Douglas Washington knows people like him are standing between modern civilization and the abyss. “It’s been rough,” Washington said. “I’ve been in the industry almost 25 years and I’ve never witnessed—I don’t believe anybody has witnessed—anything like this.”
Washington is a sanitation worker in New York City, picking up commercial waste from 6 pm until early in the morning. He is one of thousands of men and women who still go out every day, in the midst of an unprecedented coronavirus outbreak, to haul the city’s dizzying amount of garbage from houses, apartment buildings, and the private businesses that still generate waste.
Washington is worried. He has a 14-year-old with asthma at home in Queens. His fiancée is a nurse. His company, Royal Waste Services, now requires its workers to clock in on paper, instead of using a hand scanner, to combat the spread of Covid-19. Workers no longer hang out at the garage. Industrial cleaner is a constant on the trucks.
“If some of these workers start to get sick, I believe things will get worse than they are,” he said. “When people start seeing trash and garbage build up, the mindset of people, once they start seeing that—it may go another way.”
In the best of times, sanitation workers perform essential and punishing work. A city of almost 9 million people can generate more than 11,000 tons of household trash and 2,000 tons of recycling on an average day. While New York police officers and firefighters are usually regarded as the public employees who gird the city against chaos, it’s the sanitation workers who keep 21st century society recognizable. Their strikes have crippled the city before. Now, any long-term failure of the sanitation department or the vast network of private operators would lead to the spread of other diseases and infections, returning the city to a filthier, and far more precarious, existence.
Sanitation workers already have twice the fatality rates of police officers, and nearly seven times the fatality rates of firefighters. They contend daily with germ-ridden environments. Common trash can be filled with dangerous objects, like broken glass or wood with nails sticking out, that pose serious hazards. And the risk only rises with Covid-19, a highly contagious virus ravaging the five boroughs. New York City has at least 17,000 cases, with many more expected in the coming weeks. All sanitation workers are deemed essential under orders that otherwise keep most of the city’s workforce at home. There is no way to telecommute on a truck route.
“They understand we are thrilled to have them at a time like this,” said Kathryn Garcia, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY). “They understand the importance of what we are doing and so they are very clear what our mission is. They’re human. This is a very unsettled time.”
At the DSNY, which employs 6,500 sanitation workers, social distancing means the end of congregating at the garages, an otherwise crucial time for workers to bond after challenging routes. Uniforms, gloves, locker rooms, and all surfaces of the truck that are routinely touched—mirrors, wheels, door handles—are now regularly disinfected. Shifts have changed, too: To limit contact with people on the street, the DSNY is now running many more night shifts. Trucks trundle through neighborhoods from midnight to 8 am.
“Nobody is freaking out. It’s a typical New York attitude,” said one DSNY worker of the mood of his colleagues. “It’s like the same with Hurricane Katrina or all the plans they had during the Cold War. The city looks at sanitation as infantry for any disaster.”
At the same time, at least 20 garages have temporarily closed because of coronavirus cases, only to reopen after the DSNY disinfects them. Staff are worried because not everyone who worked at a temporarily closed garage is getting tested. “It doesn’t make sense—unless they test everyone, how can they just reopen? Guys are pissed about that,” the DSNY worker said. At least 61 DSNY employees have tested positive for Covid-19, according to the department.
Another concern is child care, with the city’s public and private schools now closed. To replace them, about 100 regional enrichment centers are opening to provide free meals and child care, along with art, music, and physical education, for the children of first responders, including sanitation workers. For some families, the locations will likely be further away than the local public school. Children under 3 can’t attend, presenting challenges for workers with young children if their local child care provider has closed down.
Many of the sanitation workers, unionized and employed, are still grateful to have a job in a time of sudden, skyrocketing unemployment. Bonacio Crespi, a sanitation worker with the private company M&M Sanitation, said he was now the only person in his household working.
Crespi picks up commercial waste overnights in Manhattan. The route is now surreal, with once-bustling city streets emptied of humans and their machines. Times Square is particularly eerie. “I never thought I’d see the city the way it’s been. It’s so desolate,” he said.
Crespi now changes his clothes before he goes home to New Jersey, to mitigate the risk of bringing Covid-19 to his family. Despite the threat, he needs to go to work—for the sake of a paycheck and a metropolis that depends on trucks like his for survival.
“You can’t leave the garbage on the street,” he said. “It’s not a consideration.”