My first day as a private sanitation worker was a snowy day in January 2006. I was put to work on the back of a truck without any training or safety gear. That first night, I lifted 40 tons of garbage bags by myself. By the end of the shift, I couldn’t feel my fingers or my feet. I wound up staying home for two weeks because I was in so much pain.
I was just 16 years old.
Growing up in Hunts Point, it seemed like the only way to make money was by selling drugs. When I went to work for Sanitation Salvage, I was on probation. Working at night and sleeping during the day sounded like a good way to stay out of trouble. Finally, a way to get paid that wouldn’t get me arrested.
It seemed like all the people working there had old felonies, or were immigrants. Private carting companies take advantage of people like that. The manager told me, “don’t tell anyone how old you are.”
Little did I know, sanitation ranks in the top five most deadly jobs, according the to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s more dangerous than joining the police or fire department.
I worked at Sanitation Salvage for 12 years. Most of that time, I was getting paid just $80 a night, even though I was working over 14 hours each shift, six days a week. The number of businesses I had to pick up trash at each night kept increasing, from 500 stops, to 800 stops, to 1,500 stops.
The job did so much damage to me. I can’t stand for long periods of time because my feet always hurt. I have no feeling in the tips of my fingers. Now I am a 29-year-old in an old man’s body.
One night, a few years ago, I had a mild stroke while I was working. At first I couldn’t move my arm. Then my whole right side. My coworker asked, “what’s wrong with your face?” I was in the hospital for two days, and out of work for weeks. Sanitation Salvage didn’t compensate me for the time I missed, or pay for my health care. All they told me was to bring a doctor’s note when I was ready to come back to work.
The company is no longer in business — after its trucks were involved in the deaths of two people. I am glad this one company is off the streets, but there are others like it still operating.
The City Council has a bill that would finally make private sanitation pickup a decent job. One carter would be assigned to each zone of the city, so we could have much shorter routes. To get approved for a zone, the city would look at each company’s safety practices and their history of labor violations. Bad companies like Sanitation Salvage will either have to shape up or be replaced by companies that respect workers.
The future of commercial sanitation matters for all New Yorkers. Private carters have killed more than two dozen New Yorkers in traffic crashes since 2010. Our city will never reach the goal of cutting climate emissions by 80% without increasing our extremely low commercial recycling and composting rates.
Now I work backstage at a theater. I have more free time and am finally getting to know my three kids. When they were growing up, I would still be on the garbage truck when they woke up each morning. When they came home from school, I was asleep, or out the door to start my next shift at 6 p.m. I am no longer with their mother. People need to be loved and tended to, but a private sanitation worker can’t do that, because we are always at work, or asleep.
The men and women who pick up New York’s trash shouldn’t be treated like trash. Now is the time to overhaul this industry to protect some of our city’s most vulnerable, and valuable, workers.
Amante worked for Sanitation Salvage for 12 years.