`Your body starts to break down’: Understaffed Philly sanitation crews struggle as garbage delays worsen

A surge in residential trash during the pandemic strained city sanitation crews. The pandemic has abated, yet the workforce hasn’t recovered.

Bagged up trash sit outside Philly homes

Some city residents say they are fed up with delayed trash collection. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The amount of trash Philadelphia sanitation workers are charged with picking up on a daily basis surged during the pandemic, but even as COVID-19 has abated, delayed waste collections, recycling snafus, and other problems remained chronic across the city.

While Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration has blamed inclement weather and summer holidays, city records and sanitation workers tell another story.

Nearly one in five Philadelphia sanitation workers is out or on limited duty due to injuries, and some weeks record overall absenteeism rates of nearly 40%. Hundreds have quit or otherwise left the job over the past year. A quarter or more of the garbage truck fleet is out of service on any given week, according to the city.

Omar Salaam, a business manager for AFSCME District Council 33, a union that represents sanitation workers, said the workforce is critically understaffed, long ago was pushed to the brink by mandatory overtime — and now, is possibly on the brink of a strike.

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“Our men and women have been working 16 months straight, for 10 to 12 hours a day, often six and, sometimes, seven days a week,” Salaam said. “The human body can only take so much.”

Stay-at-home orders issued last year in response to COVID-19 caused a nearly 30% spike in trash collections and took a heavy toll on frontline collection crews last summer. But trash collection problems have persisted even as both trends have abated. Data from the Streets Department shows its Sanitation Division struggling to maintain services in the face of high rates of injuries, staff attrition, and chronic mechanical issues.

Terrill Haigler, who resigned from a sanitation worker job in the spring after gaining fame on social media as “Ya Fav Trash Man” for viral posts about trash collection, described an exhausted workforce plagued by work-related injuries such as torn rotator cuffs. Injuries from hazardous waste were a major issue, made worse by a lack of suitable protective gear, he said.

Haigler said the staggering reality is that 220 out of 1,168 Sanitation Division employees are out-of-work or on limited duty due to injuries stemming from these conditions.

“You pick up a bag with a needle in it and you don’t see a puncture, or a piece of glass sticking out. You go to throw it in there and cut your leg or something,” said Haigler, who is soliciting donations to buy better gloves for collection crews. “So you have the normal wear-and-tear injuries, and then you have the actual injuries and the danger of the job that comes with it. So you’re fighting two monsters.”

He also echoed Salaam’s description of a workforce run ragged during the pandemic. Since the spring, Streets Department managers have required sanitation workers to put in mandatory sixth-day overtime shifts.

The department acknowledged implementing “intermittent” mandatory overtime but said it had only required sixth-day shifts since Memorial Day weekend, when Streets employees set a weekly record for absenteeism with 37% of all sanitation workers calling out. The department said its average absentee rate over the past year was 30%, while 2020 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics put the local government average at just 2.8%.

Joy Huertas, a Streets Department spokesperson, said the city had failed to get enough takers for voluntary overtime and described a workforce unusually prone to absenteeism.

“While rates of injury are a reflection of the very demanding physical requirements of the job, other unplanned absenteeism is above average relative to other city employees as well as the department’s experienced absenteeism rates from past years,” Huertas said.

The spokesperson said the city wanted to negotiate with District Council 33 to revise the sick-leave policy. But Haigler said those comments were an attempt to dump blame on workers for gaming the system, instead of dealing with the reality of burnout.

“I’ve talked to a lot of former coworkers who’ve been working every Saturday since February, mandatory overtime,” he said. “Your body starts to break down. You just need a break. You need a rest. You just wake up one morning, you go, ‘I literally cannot get out of bed.’”

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Terrill Haigler aka @_yafavtrashman smiles during a shift as a city sanitation worker. (Courtesy of Terrill Haigler)

Sanitation exodus

The Streets Department said it plans to hire 69 more employees with a recently approved $9 million increase to the Sanitation Division’s $135 million budget. Though the vast majority of new hires and most funding would go toward expanded street cleaning, Huertas said the department would seek to “keep collections operations staffing at higher levels” into the next fiscal year.

But that may not be easy.

Last summer, as the department was reeling from the outbreak of the pandemic and related delays, officials publicized a hiring surge. Ultimately, the department hired 253 temps. While 110 were eventually converted to permanent staff and 23 remain on with temp status, nearly half are gone. Though the department said it has added workers — 325 over the past year — it is losing them nearly as quickly, with 268 sanitation workers having quit, retired, or been terminated over the past year.

Government positions generally have less turnover than private-sector jobs, with places like New York City reporting overall separation rates of between 6% and 8% in 2015 and just 3.7% for its Sanitation Division. With an attrition rate closer to 20% within Philly’s Sanitation Division, the department is closer to rates seen among correctional officers.

Huertas said the attrition rate for permanent sanitation workers — as opposed to temps — was lower, at 11.7%. However, she did not dispute that attrition was an issue. The average attrition rate across city departments last year was 7.9%.

“The attrition for sanitation field employees is still significantly higher than the overall city average,” she said.

Things are little better on the mechanical side. The city employs 315 trash compactor trucks, only about 230 or 240 of which are operational at any given time.

Huertas said the rates were normal “given the size and utilization of our compactor fleet and age of some of our vehicles.” But Haigler said that the city’s official shop count understated the scope of the problem.

“To them, a working truck is one that can drive off the lot,” he said. “A working truck to me is something that has [working] heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.”

Haigler linked problems with the trucks to increasing absenteeism in the summer. Although he said he took 30,000 or 40,000 steps a day when walking routes, working inside the trucks was not much better.

“You’re sitting in the trash truck. It’s almost 15 to 20 degrees hotter in the truck than it is outside because of the cabin, because the engine is right next to you,” he said. “It’s unbearable.”

The Kenney administration has taken some other steps to try to stanch the bleeding. Streets Department managers have temporarily cycled in workers from other divisions to help with collections, and opened up overtime shifts to people in other departments for two weeks after Memorial Day.

“They’ve taken guys away from asphalt paving and put them into collections. We’ve had people from the airport work their eight hours there, and then go work for four hours throwing trash,” Salaam said.

Exhausted workers and frustrated residents

One veteran sanitation worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the past year as the worst she had seen in nearly two decades on the job.

“Two hours overtime every day, and they make us come in on Saturday,” she said. “And if we don’t come in, they can suspend us.”

She blamed chronic mismanagement by the chief of operations for the delays, saying officials were essentially playing a game of whack-a-mole: constantly pulling crews from one collection area to pick up another that was behind, in a vain attempt to keep up with elevated trash levels.

“They get trash up in one area and then leave another,” the veteran employee said. “But if every area has the same amount of trash, why would you take us from one area and put us to another?”

Efforts to boost collections had other side effects. While crews are expected to move some 16 tons of trash each day, the employee said crews were encouraged to collect more when possible. But she believed overpacking led to more breakdowns, as thin Office of Fleet Management mechanic crews left broken-down trucks sitting for “months” without repair.

Staffing up brought no relief as the nature of the job churned through new workers, many of whom simply couldn’t hack the intense physical demands and mandatory overtime. The worker said that, despite the taxing labor and threat of injuries, entry-level salaries were low, starting around $34,342 with no hazard pay, a figure confirmed by city officials. Although the department’s current service levels now hinged on overtime, problems with the city’s new payroll system meant pay was sometimes late.

She said Streets Department officials, meanwhile, seemed out of touch with the daily struggles of the Sanitation Division, which have gotten worse as the opioid epidemic left some areas carpeted with syringes.

“They don’t even bring us water. This weather we’re seeing, you need water. So we buy a case of our own every day and have it under the seat,” she said. “Some guys go through like seven bottles of water each shift. They need it to pour it over their heads and bodies to stay cool.”

Residents, meanwhile, have noticed the difference. Several shared stories from the past month, describing late collections across the city.

Sales manager Nicholas Castagna said pickup was late throughout his South Philadelphia neighborhood.

“Just about every week, the pickup is at least a day late,” he said. “Sometimes three or four [days]. … The longer the trash sits, the dirtier the streets get. And the city hasn’t cleaned them for years.”

Dominic Powell, a lawyer who lives in West Philly, said sometimes trash was collected but recycling was not. The city had put recycling crews on alternate week deployment during the pandemic, but even after weekly service allegedly returned, poor communication from the department continued. Powell said it was a “guessing game” when the lidless blue containers would be picked up.

“When trash has been out in the sun, it smells bad. People put more trash into the recycling bins. Kids start playing with it,” he said. “On Saturday, some kids took some wine bottles from ours and smashed them in the street and then ran off.”

But many residents also said the issues today were hardly new, they were simply worse. Philadelphia has long had a reputation for dirty streets, struggling to beat back a tide of illegal dumping only lacking a comprehensive street-cleaning plan. And District Council 33’s Salaam said many of the recent problems were not new.

“A lot of the problems the department has now, they’ve always had. COVID just brought it to light,” he said. “They’re not new, they just can’t hide behind anything, especially when more people are home, When trash is two to three days behind, people are noticing, and there’s more people noticing it.”

But he also said his union’s members felt as if they often took most of the blame from both the department and the general public for short staffing and equipment issues, and a generally tough job.

“The biggest thing the members would appreciate is respect,” he said. “We’re mandated to live here, and when trash is left on the ground here, that’s our trash being left on the ground. We’re living and dealing with the same issues.”

The veteran sanitation worker said change needed to come soon. The DC 33 contract expired last week, and last Tuesday the union immediately authorized a strike vote, a sign city workers were on edge.

“Everybody is mad. We can’t even spend time with our families,” she said. “People are ready to strike, and let me tell you, this is one job you do not want to go on strike.”

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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