New York City's Private Garbage Collectors Are Treated Like Trash
If you were shopping at A&M Discount market in Staten Island last fall, the waste produced at the store where you bought your milk, eggs, and cat food may have contributed to Sidney Marthone losing part of his middle finger when he picked up the garbage the morning of November 10.
"I tried to empty the containers in the back of the truck," says Marthone. "They were damaged, they slipped, and my finger got caught between the broken container and the back of the truck. It cut the end off."
Now the Teamsters Union Local 813 is giving a middle finger to most of the 200 private waste-hauling companies in the city like the one that employed Marthone.
"You got laws in effect now, but these companies don’t abide by any of those rules as the system currently stands because they don’t fear the fines," says Allan Henry, a labor organizer for Teamsters Local 813.
Most New Yorkers don’t realize city sanitation workers who pick up residential trash aren’t the ones hauling away commercial waste. Instead, a web of private companies contract with businesses to pick up, transport, sort, and transfer garbage.
The Mob may not run New York City’s private waste-management trade any more (as far as we can tell) but commercial waste operators are, in the eyes of the Teamster’s Union, participating in their own kind of disorganized crime.
Last week, the union held a rally to support the private workers, and to call on the city to support Transform Don't Trash NYC, a coalition of labor, environmental, and community groups. The New York City Council heard testimony last month from these groups.
They’re advocating for the council to establish commercial zones in an effort to decrease traffic from over 4,000 private sanitation trucks that traverse hundreds of miles of the city’s streets each night. The bill they seek would also address strengthening safety standards, combating wage theft, and requiring mandatory worker training with stricter oversight.
"These guys are doing really dangerous work,” says Charlene Obernauer, executive director of New York Committee of Occupational Safety and Health, which released a report last week on the industry, called "Dirty and Dangerous." "I could see putting yourself at risk for a six-figure salary, or decent living wage, but for what these guys are making?"
Private sanitation workers earn between $9 and $12 an hour, she says. By comparison, after five years, city sanitation workers earn over $88,000 per year.
This kind of money is very appealing to Carl Orlando, who works for a private company.
"Everyone says, 'Why don’t you just work for the city?' It’s not that easy," says Orlando. "You have to take a test. You have to get on a waiting list. I’m currently on it."
But he might not get that job in this lifetime.
"I’m number 53,000 on the waiting list. I don’t really have hope of that coming through any time soon."
Labor advocacy groups and organizers say the two halves of the sanitation system couldn’t be more different. The private industry is the shadow side, where workers are underpaid, exposed to more dangers as the companies shirk the most basic safety precautions.
It’s a dangerous job. Among all sanitation workers, 85 percent of all fatalities happen with the private-sector haulers, according to the OSHA report.
In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the report adds that there were seventy sanitation workers killed nationwide.
The state OSHA report outlines what it calls the commercial waste industry’s "corrupt" and "unsafe" practices. This is what Marthone says was the problem that morning he lost part of his finger.
"It was the company’s fault, because the containers were damaged," Marthone says. "We called to change the containers; they never changed it."
Five Star, based in Maspeth, is the company he worked for. It says Martone wasn’t wearing safety gear — gloves. And the company maintains the condition of the containers was the grocery store’s responsibility, not theirs.
Aside from fault, Marthone says the company has done wrong by him regarding his workers' comp claim.
Six months after the accident, "I have only received two workers' comp checks for $150 because of Five Star’s games," he says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.