Photo credit: Hibbard Nash
For this article, New Labor Forum’s “Working-Class Voices” columnist Kressent Pottenger interviewed Terrill Haigler, a former sanitation worker in the Philadelphia Streets Department, and a current advocate and grassroots organizer to improve conditions for sanitation workers in the city of Philadelphia. Through social media @_yafavtrashman, he has organized community cleanups, get out the vote efforts, and engaged local citizens in improving conditions in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
I became a sanitation worker for the City of Philadelphia Streets Department and, simultaneously, a member of AFSCME [American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees] Local 427 in 2019. I actually applied for the job in 2017. The way it works in Philly is you sit on a list for a little while before your number gets called. I was number 782 on the list. I only applied because it is a city job. If you work for the city for ten years, you get a pension. The quickest way into the city is through Sanitation. Most of the other city jobs you gotta take a test, but if you are already a city worker, you can switch over to other departments. I was a laborer. I was the one picking up the trash off the ground and throwing it into the truck. My routes were the Kensington and Logan neighborhoods. You have the driver and two laborers in the truck, so three people all together. The driver goes down the block, and the two laborers stand on each side of the street, throwing the trash into the truck and operating the compactor. Then you have dispatchers who give out routes. You can call them, and they can tell you when things switch or change. You have crew chiefs who drive around while you are doing your job, making sure you are ok. If anybody gets hurt, they pick ’em up or bring you water. Then you have the supervisors who stay at the yard. They direct the crew chiefs on what to do, and they communicate with the higher-ups downtown.
Before I started, I had about three days of paid training. We learned how to use the trucks, about safety, and social media. We learned about something they called swagging, which is when a sanitation worker is paid by someone to pick up illegal waste—for example, construction debris that should technically be removed by a private sanitation company. We talked about being careful on the job and looking out for pedestrians, and about a code of ethics on how to act on the job if a resident attacks you and what you should do. (I have had co-workers who had guns pulled on them.) There’s always room to crawl up the scale. Once you hit six months, you can submit your driver’s license and start driving the trucks. After you get a certain amount of hours driving, you can take another test and become a main driver, or you can take a test to become a crew chief or a supervisor. To me, the higher you went up the scale, the more problems of leadership you would have to deal with. That didn’t interest me.
I started seeing a lot of systematic problems pretty soon after I started. I know there are different types of operational systems all over the country. I can only speak my truth about Philadelphia. The department gave us gardening gloves. We got a boot voucher, but the better boots are more expensive than the vouchers. So you have to pay the difference. They gave us jumpsuits that were kinda heavy. Some people could love them, but to me, it was just like “this doesn’t help me do my job better.” I found myself buying tough jeans like Route 66, some expensive steel toes, and some level 5 puncture proof gloves, using my own money. The starting salary is only $31,000 a year. You get vacation, health benefits, vision, and dental. It’s a city job, so you get everything a city worker gets; but on an annual salary of $31,000, I have to live in the city where the average home costs about $280,000, and I have three kids. Where am I finding my own money to buy my own PPE [personal protective equipment]?
. . . [O]n an annual salary of$31,000, I have to live in the city where the average home costs about $280,000 and I have three kids. Where am I finding my own money to buy my own PPE?
Before Covid-19, most people were at work when we picked up the trash. You put your trash can out on the curb; you come back, the can is empty and it’s sitting there. And you’re like, “Oh thank you.” But you really don’t get to meet the worker; see what they look like, ask them how their kids are, how their day is going. But when Covid hit, you actually got to experience that—seeing your sanitation worker, and how hard they work, going down your block throwing all the trash into the truck. People were able to witness what we go through. You walk almost twelve miles a day on some routes. You’re picking up trash, putting it in the truck. And I mean you’re only on the back of the truck for a hot second, turning the corner. Then you gotta go right back down the block. And you never have the same amount of trash. It’s thirty bags one week; then it’s ten bags another week; then it’s sixty bags. You’re dealing with all different types of things people decide to do, like DIY (Do It Yourself) projects. Maybe last week all they had was three bags. This week they’ve got twelve bags, and half of it’s wood. You have to come prepared for any and everything every single day. That’s mentally taxing sometimes.
When we took the physical, you had to be able to lift seventy-five pounds consistently to get hired. We don’t go by how many blocks; we go by tonnage. In order to have our day completed, the goal is to turn in sixteen to eighteen tons at least every day. The truck holds about nine tons comfortably, so according to management, we would have to fill the truck twice before our day is over. That’s about sixteen to eighteen tons of trash every single day. There’s not a common injury on this job. Some people get torn rotator cuffs; others get a torn bicep or hamstring. I had a co-worker who had to get his hip replaced. It is such a beating on your body. Workers have been hit with sticks flying out of the truck, losing a tooth, an eye, or a finger. I have had co-workers bit by wildlife—raccoons, possums, or rats—because they didn’t know animals were in the can. You name it: workers getting stuck by needles or stepping on a bag and getting a nail right through their boot. I have heard it all. I have seen some of it. I’ve seen someone open up the door on a rainy day, slip off the steps, and break their back.
It is such a beating on your body. Workers have been hit with sticks flying out of the truck, losing a tooth, an eye, or a finger. I have had co-workers bit by wildlife—raccoons, possums, or rats—because they didn’t know animals were in the can.
My background is actually in theater. I started at the age of three at Freedom Theater in North Philadelphia. My mother was walking by one day, and they encouraged her to enroll me. I graduated as a dance major in 2007 from The Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts. Because of my theater background, I’ve been taught to use my voice. So I just started asking questions. That’s all I could do. I can honestly say that I got on management’s nerves pretty early. Fast forward three months after I started, and Covid-19 hits in March. It took three weeks for us to realize how unprepared we were as an operation for Coronavirus. I always said they called us essential workers, but they did not treat us as essential. You cannot be six feet apart in a trash truck. In a trash truck, you are six inches apart. In Philadelphia, over 300 sanitation workers tested positive for Covid-19, which means if one person in your truck tests positive, then you have to do contact tracing; all of them have to be quarantined. Then if everybody is quarantining, who is picking up the trash? It caused extreme delays last summer, like three to five days— almost a week behind. Then you add 30 percent more trash, people just being burned out, and getting hurt. At a certain point, I worked twenty days straight, twenty-hour shifts. While the money was great, I barely could walk. When I took a few days off at one point, I slept for twelve hours straight.
The heat just made the trash stinkier and attracted wildlife. Maybe one out of ten trucks would have air or heat. It is actually 110 degrees in the truck.
There was no on-the-job Covid testing, butthey had some sites set up that we could go to. There are six yards in Philadelphia. We should have had testing at the yards. When it comes to PPE, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommended KN95 masks. But, I felt like they gave us cut-out pieces of bedsheets for masks. It was paper-thin. It wasn’t adequate. They did not give us cleaning supplies. I do not feel like Philadelphia’s sanitation operation really had a strategic plan to deal with Covid. They were like, “We will figure it out at the expense of you guys.” One block usually takes twenty-five minutes to clean. With 30 percent more trash, it’s now taking you forty-five to fifty minutes. This means that you are not picking up as many blocks as you would in a normal shift. Pickup was delayed on more and more blocks, which means five-day delays here in Philadelphia. It was to the point where some people were just taking their trash to the dump themselves. The heat just made the trash stinkier and attracted wildlife. Maybe one out of ten trucks would have air or heat. It is actually 110 degrees in the truck. We are drinking eight bottles of water a day, just baking inside the truck. That would just kill morale when you gotta pick up sixteen more tons of trash. When Covid first hit, they paid time-and-a-half for two weeks, and then stopped. Governor Tom Wolf came out with a hazard pay grant: he paid grocery store cashiers, packers at Walmart and Target, and home health aides an extra $3 an hour, but he left sanitation workers off the list.
Around May 2020, there were so many newspaper articles coming out in Philadelphia, blaming sanitation workers for delays. I was, like, actually 300 of my co-workers were out at the time with Covid-19. People don’t see that we’re dealing with Covid just as much as you are, and because your trash is out there, we are supposed to just ignore what we are going through. I wanted to humanize the industry. I wanted people to realize that sanitation workers are actual human beings, picking up your trash. A robot isn’t picking up your trash, something you would just fix with this wire or that wire. We were dealing with Covid-19; we were dealing with family. I lost my mother during the pandemic. She passed away in November. I got a short amount of time off, and then I had to go back to work. Those are things that people are dealing with. Gun violence is happening. A couple of coworker’s kids got killed by gun violence. We are dealing with real life. It’s frustrating when you’re dealing with all of that, and the media starts talking about you like you’re worth nothing, like you are being lazy. I was like, I’m going to show people what actually happens in the day and the life of the sanitation worker.
So, I started taking pictures and videos for my Instagram account YaFavTrashman, shedding light on what we’re dealing with: I’m at the job, I just dumped a can, and a possum popped out. This is what we deal with all day. All I was asking for was grace and understanding. I do believe the focus has shifted in Philadelphia to actually evaluating leadership and not so much the workers, because we come to work every day. We show up. We do what we can, and we do what we are told. It is by the direction of leadership that things go awry. It is not the sanitation workers’ fault just because they are the ones doing the work. The type of leadership, calling the shots, doing the operations, and making decisions, is what’s causing delays. I left Sanitation recently, and am now a full-time advocate and organizer working to raise awareness of the conditions in the sanitation industry.
When Covid first hit, they paid time-and-a-half for two weeks, and then stopped. Governor Tom Wolf came out with a hazard pay grant: he paid grocery store cashiers, packers at Walmart and Target, and home health aides an extra $3 an hour, but he left sanitation workers off the list.
There’s a new union leadership, at AFSCME DC 33. When they were negotiating a first contract this past summer, they approved a strike for July if workers did not like the contract. So we’ll see how it goes. Right now, it’s kinda quiet; we’re waiting to see what the contract looks like. [A tentative agreement was reached on September 6, including annual wage increases and special pandemic-related pay, improvements in the health care fund, and pay grade changes for trash collectors.] If my son wants to become a sanitation worker, I want him to have the most profitable, enjoyable, coolest job that he can have. In its current state, in Philadelphia, it sucks to be a sanitation worker. Just plain out. I want to shift the narrative, and shift mind-sets of the powers that be. Like hey, there’s a way for this to work not only for the residents of Philadelphia, but for the sanitation workers, too. But I don’t think that’s going to happen until we get a new administration. Philadelphia is still way behind, manually throwing trash. In Austin, Texas, they have trucks with tippers on them, giving everybody a standardized can. You put the can on the truck; it hooks up; you pull it; then it dumps. You pull the can down and just roll it back. The trash is more controlled. It’s not all over the streets, and the truck does all the work for you. That’s so much less energy, less stress, and impact on the human body than manually throwing 200 to 300 bags a day, which is why Austin’s injury rate is much lower than Philadelphia’s. And Austin has a 90 percent attendance rate every week—compared to 67 percent in Philadelphia.
There’s a big misconception that adding automatic trucks cuts jobs out. It does the total opposite. It creates jobs. Taking one person from the truck in Philadelphia, you can create almost sixty to seventy new crews, which means you have more crews to spread around and not have so many large maps. A map is the route we work. You could cut maps in half. You could have two trucks in the same map. Now, you have more crews, and you have everybody coming to work because they are not hurt. In addition to modernizing the working conditions, we need a higher starting salary. In some sanitation operations around the country, the starting salary is $70,000 to $80,000 a year—not like the $31,000 here in Philly. Hazard pay should be an extra $6 to $7 an hour for the work that you do. We need to have high-level class 5 puncture proof gloves and free boots. We need different uniforms like jeans, a t-shirt, and a reflective vest, so we can work more comfortably. That way, I don’t have to worry about being hot or cold. I can add clothes or take off clothes. I can wear thermals under my jeans. If you’re going to pay for a jumpsuit, pay for a high-quality jumpsuit that is going to deflect bacteria and keep me dry. Give me a wetsuit where it’s insulated so if I spill something on me, it does not go through, and now I’m wet for the rest of the day. We should really invest in technology. We should seize every opportunity available to make the job easier in the truck. There’s so much that we can do in the truck. In Austin, for example, they have a digital route in the truck; in Philly, you still get a paper route you gotta mark off.
As for the public, you can help sanitation workers by caring about how you put your trash out: rinse out your recyclables and tie your bags. Put your trash out nice and neat—stacked and manageable. If you have handles on your trash can with the wheels, then put the handles out so the sanitation worker can just walk up and grab that handle. Second thing is, we gotta start demanding that changes in sanitation work be a priority of the city council and mayor. I know gun violence is extra important. It’s a Number One priority. But there’s a connection: If you look at the zip codes that have the highest amount of gun violence in Philadelphia, they are the zip codes that have the least sanitation service. If we clean and give resources to these neighborhoods, we could have a positive impact and reduce gun violence. Let’s just push it forward, because at this point—as we wait for the city to make a decision—we’re going to be covered in filth. I say take the responsibility out of the city’s hands, and put in our own. Let’s do it together through organizing, voting, and community cleanups. Let’s do it for ourselves. Let them catch up to us.
Kressent Pottenger holds an MA in Labor Studies from The Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at CUNY and was awarded the SEIU 925 Research Fellowship by
Wayne State University in 2012. She is currently working on a research project about 9to5 and women organizing in the workplace.