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‘We don’t feel safe’: Sanitation workers anxiously wait for city masks to arrive

Sanitation workers in Northeast Philadelphia Monday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sanitation workers in Northeast Philadelphia Monday. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Most of the time he loves going to work, one 35-year-old Philadelphia sanitation worker said this week.

A Northeast Philadelphia resident and father of two, he has worked for the city’s Streets Department five days a week for seven years. The work always has its risks,  but he’s enjoyed being outside and able to talk with people across the city.

Things are different now during the coronavirus pandemic.

He’s exhausted and afraid of getting sick but needs his paycheck to provide for his family. Last week, he and his coworkers had to work from Monday to Sunday, to catch up on trash pickup delays. The city stopped paying them a hazard pay of time and half, and he is still waiting on protective masks promised by Mayor Jim Kenney.

“Honestly, it’s a little depressing,” said the sanitation worker, who asked to speak anonymously for fear of retaliation. “We’re not getting the right equipment that we need. And I’m actually fearful of what I might take home to my family, you know? But we have to be out here on the front line.”

Brian Abernathy, the city’s managing director, said Monday that his administration was working to provide masks and other personal protective equipment for all city employees starting Tuesday. A spokesperson for the city’s Streets Department acknowledged Wednesday that it, like other essential service providers, “is challenged with supply and delivery of this equipment due to high demand with other life-saving priorities.”

The department, the spokesperson said, has “purchased and distributed to our employees thousands of masks, disposable gloves and reusable gloves in addition to the standard-issue reusable gloves” and will continue to provide “necessary” protective gear as “resources become available for our employees.”

“If I could wave my magic wand, I certainly would. But I can’t,” Abernathy said Monday.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said Tuesday that workers who can’t stay at home should be wearing masks if they’re around other people.

But sanitation workers who work in teams and pick up trash from hundreds of homes every day said Wednesday that they are still working unprotected or with makeshift coverings like bandanas.

“We’re supposed to have masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, things like that. We should be supplied with that on a daily basis. But that’s not the case at the moment,” said the anonymous sanitation worker.

According to Omar Salaam, a business agent with AFSCME District Council 33, which represents more than 1,100 Streets Department workers, employees have been left to their own devices. Some have had to buy their own protective equipment, others have gotten masks and hand sanitizer from generous residents. But the city, Salaam said, is not delivering on its commitments.

“Every day, I’m out the streets checking the routes and making sure everyone is ok. I still don’t see the guys fully equipped,” Salaam said. “I want to see every guy in the street with a mask, every guy in the street wearing gloves and being properly covered up so that they can be safe.”

Abernathy has said that workers who don’t have protective equipment and don’t feel safe do not need to come to work, but workers say staying home is not an option for them.

“The anxiety level is high,” said another worker, a nine-year-old veteran of the department who also spoke under the condition of anonymity. “We don’t feel safe, we don’t feel protected and we don’t feel appreciated by the city.”

The 32-year-old lives with his two children, ages 4 and 5, and his girlfriend who’s a nurse.

“It’s difficult, it’s a struggle,” he said. “We have a lot of family support, so that helps out. But that too can be a concern, with the children traveling.”

He’s particularly afraid of residents who dispose of medical waste in black trash bags, without giving them any indication of what’s inside them. Once in the truck, the bags can burst and send splashes of the waste in all directions.

“So we’re constantly in danger,” he said.

He said he wishes the city would check on them more often, provide them with the right equipment, and give them a testing site for them to be aware of their situation. Right now, he said, as soon as someone coughs, everyone gets paranoid.

“That would ease our minds a whole lot, and we don’t have that. And since we’re in the front line we should definitely have that. We should be taken as seriously as the policemen and the firemen, because we’re like the low man on the totem pole. But, in my opinion, all our jobs are equal in helping the city operate efficiently. But we don’t get that respect,” he said.

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