Trashed: Inside the Deadly World of Private Garbage Collection

Kiera Feldman, Trashed: Inside the Deadly World of Private Garbage Collection. ProPublica, Thursday, 4 January 2018. “There are two vastly different worlds of garbage in New York City: day and night. By day, 7,200 uniformed municipal workers from the city’s Department of Sanitation go door-to-door, collecting the residential trash. Like postal workers, they tend to follow compact routes. They work eight-hour days with time-and-a-half for overtime and snow removal and double-time for Sundays. With a median base pay of $69,000 plus health care, a pension, almost four weeks of paid vacation and unlimited sick days, the Department of Sanitation workforce is overwhelmingly full time and unionized. It’s also 55 percent white, and 91 percent male. But come nightfall, an army of private garbage trucks from more than 250 sanitation companies zigzag across town in ad hoc fashion, carting away the trash and recycling from every business — every bodega, restaurant and office building in the five boroughs. Those private carters remove more than half of the city’s total waste.”

Many waste companies pay workers a flat fee, some as little as $80 a shift, no matter the hours, with no health benefits, overtime pay or retirement plans. The practice of employing helpers off the books is widespread, according to a 2016 report by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. The workforce is more than 60 percent minority, and more than half of Latino workers and about a third of black workers earn less than $35,000 annually. Many of these jobs are non-union, and while the drivers tend to be full-time employees, the helpers are often contract workers with unstable hours — some scrambling to work enough to feed their families, others clocking 18-hour or longer days. A May 2016 study by the nonprofit New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health found that the underpayment or nonpayment of wages is ‘rampant in the commercial waste industry.’…

Private garbage trucks are ubiquitous on New York’s streets after dark, yet the human effort involved remains largely invisible to most people. To travel deep into the world of New York’s midnight trash collection is to enter a realm where people often toil in grave danger for low pay. Those perils are easy to miss in the roar of a diesel engine, the rush of a giant truck and a waft of scent from a bag we’re all happy to see somebody else remove.