Philly Streets Commissioner: City can’t afford hazard pay for sanitation workers

Sanitation workers in Northeast Philadelphia on March 30, 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sanitation workers in Northeast Philadelphia on March 30, 2020. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The City of Brotherly Love does not have the money to pay sanitation workers hazard pay, according to Philadelphia Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams.

The reason is simple: Philly is broke. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the city was forced to plug a $749 million budget hole, mostly due to a shortfall in taxes, the commissioner told City Council Wednesday.

“We sympathize with calls to provide additional pay for frontline workers who continue to put their lives on the line during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, any proposal for hazardous pay — for the sanitation team or any city workers — would need to be supported with outside funding from state and federal sources,” Williams said during a Labor Committee hearing on Wednesday.

City Council passed a resolution calling for the hearing in January — months before Philadelphia reported its first positive case of COVID-19. But Councilmember Cherelle Parker, who introduced the measure in response to an October 2019 article from PlanPhilly, still hopes to convince the city that sanitation workers deserve hazard pay — especially in light of the additional risks they’ve had to take to keep working during the pandemic.

With people working from home, the amount of trash hitting the curbs each week for pickup skyrocketed, putting workers at higher risk of injuring themselves. Sanitation employees have also complained about a lack of personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves and hand sanitizer. The problem spurred one employee, Terrill Haigler, aka @_yafavtrashman, to launch a fundraising campaign to purchase safety gear for himself and his coworkers. Haigler has also used his platform to call for hazard pay.

“COVID is certainly a hazard to them right now — maybe even the biggest hazard. But once COVID is gone and we have a vaccine, there will still be other hazards remaining,” said Parker.

Among them: feces, used hypodermic needles, and biodiesel exhaust from trucks.

Shyketa Armstead, a sanitation worker who picks up garbage across the city, said she’s contended with human feces smeared on a BigBelly trash can in Center City and routinely faces the prospect of being pricked with needles in Kensington.

“In Kensington, you gotta slow down and examine the trash because it’s needles sticking out. Not just laying in the trash — sticking out. So if you were to throw the bag of trash into the hopper, that needle could go into one of your partners or someone else on the street,” she said.

Experiences like that are why she believes she and her fellow sanitation workers are entitled to hazard pay.

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“They acknowledge that we have a dangerous job. And when they say, ‘thank you,’ I appreciate that because we do have a job that has to be done. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. And we just want to be appreciated for a job that probably nobody else would wanna do,” said Armstead.

Her union — Local 427 of AFSCME District Council 33 — agrees.

District Council 33 is currently operating under a one-year contract extension, but is scheduled to begin bargaining for a new four-year deal this spring. Business agent Omar Salaam said he’s hopeful that hazard pay will be part of those discussions.

“It’s long overdue,” said Salaam. “I understand times are tough right now, but I’m sure if we sit down and have a conversation we can come to an agreement.”

“Jim Kenney is a very labor-friendly mayor,” he added.

Asked about hazard pay, a spokeswoman for the Kenney administration echoed Williams’ testimony but did not outright reject the possibility.

“As with many other municipalities, Philadelphia is facing one of the greatest financial downturns the city has ever seen. We will continue to work with state and federal officials to bring all relevant resources to the City of Philadelphia as we continue to battle this pandemic,” said Kelly Cofrancisco in an email.

Sanitation workers in cities around the country have also raised the issue of hazard pay — and in some cases received it.

Over the summer, the Virginia Beach City Council approved a measure that would provide $1,500 in hazard pay to each employee. The bill was passed shortly after more than 100 sanitation workers from Virginia Beach’s Waste Management Department staged a one-day strike demanding hazard pay.

Sanitation workers in Montgomery, Alabama, are also receiving hazard pay now after the Montgomery City-County Personnel Board voted to add them to the list of city employees who are eligible for it.

Employees in New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Milkwaukee continue to push for hazard pay.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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