Trash Talk: Inside the Fight to Reform NYC’s Commercial Trash Hauling Industry

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Each evening, a few thousand mostly black and brown workers pull on their gloves and boots, travel to North Brooklyn or the Bronx or Eastern Queens, board garbage trucks, and drive across the city to collect thousands of pounds of garbage from restaurants, stores, hotels, warehouses and office buildings throughout New York City.

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Trash collection is the fifth-most dangerous job in America, according to fatality data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A commercial trash worker in New York City can pick up as much as 30 tons of garbage per night, over the course of a shift that can last as long 16 hours. More than 200 private carting companies collect 12,000 tons of trash from 108,000 customers across the city each night. The 20 largest haulers handle about 85 percent of the city’s commercial waste, according to data from a waste industry trade group and the New York City Department of Sanitation. Dozens of small companies end up competing for that bottom slice of the market.

Unions and reformers claim that the cut-throat competition between carters creates incentives for companies to cut corners and exploit their workers. Some companies reportedly push their drivers to make hundreds of stops a night. A recent ProPublica report on Sanitation Salvage, a carter based in the Bronx that’s been involved in two fatal accidents in the past year, found that many of the company’s routes had 1,000 stops or more. Some workers in the commercial carting business make as little as $40 to $80 a night (or the equivalent of $11,520 to $23,040 a year), but others with experience and strong union contracts can earn up to $100,000 a year, according to interviews with workers, union organizers and industry groups.

The differences between commercial hauling companies can be stark: some treat their workers fairly, give them protective gear, offer them safety training and provide decent pay and health benefits for the hours they work. Others have been sued repeatedly by workers alleging wage theft or lack of workers’ compensation pay for injuries, or by the families of workers killed on the job. Seven people—including one worker—were killed by private sanitation trucks in 2017.

The commercial carting business, even on its best days, seems rougher around the edges than the residential trash collection run by the the DSNY. The DSNY workers are represented by the Teamsters, work no more than eight hours a day, and are eligible for excellent benefits and pensions. City trash collector salaries start at $35,000 a year and rise to $74,000 after five years on the job, with supervisors pulling in close to $100,000 annually before overtime, payroll data from the city Comptroller’s Office indicates.

Federal and state laws prohibit trash truck drivers from driving more than 11 hours and limit the length of a shift to 14 hours. Allan Henry, a union organizer for Teamsters Local 813 who used to drive for the city’s largest hauler, Action Carting, said that Action Carting regularly pushes its drivers to log 14 or more hours behind the wheel. The majority are also working six days a week, he said. Struggling with fatigue and the pressure to finish long routes, drivers sometimes blow through red lights, run over pedestrians or collide with other cars.

When he started in the commercial carting industry in 1985, Henry said that he worked eight- to 10-hour shifts, rather than 12 or 16 hours. “You’re doing a day and three quarters of work in one day which is insane,” he explained. “At Action they tell their workers [the limit is] 14 hours. Some don’t tell their workers anything at all.”

Henry quit his job as a driver at Action Carting in 2014, because three decades in the industry had taken a toll on his body. “They’re working in the rain, the cold, the heat,” he said. “You’re doing this job and there’s no way you’re going to be in good health. I got off the truck in my 30th year because I would have needed a hip replacement and my knees were bad.”

A current Action driver, who requested anonymity to avoid jeopardizing his job, backed up Henry’s account of working conditions with the company. The worker has been with Action for several years. He told Commercial Observer that most Action drivers regularly worked 12- to 14-hour shifts and made anywhere from 275 to 1,000 stops a night on their routes. Over the course of two-plus decades behind the wheel of a commercial trash truck, he’s injured his back, his knees and his neck.

Each night around 3 a.m., he gets into the cab of a roll-off truck, which has a hydraulic lift with a big steel cable that picks up dumpsters full of debris and pulls them onto the bed of the truck. He picks up as many as eight or nine dumpsters—or “boxes” as they’re known in the garbage industry—in a night. If he’s lucky, he gets off by 3 or 4 p.m., just in time to go home, make dinner for his teenage son and help him get ready for school the next day.  

Recently, while opening up the steel doors to a waste transfer station, he was trying to loosen the ratchet on the door and then the hook that keeps it in place slammed down on his fingers, breaking one of them. “It’s a very dangerous job,” he said. “At any given moment you could get hurt.”

He earns $28 an hour, or roughly $92,000 a year, and works six days a week. Ten years ago, he earned $27 an hour, and his pay has barely increased in the intervening decade. When Action bought his previous employer, Waste Management, several years ago, they cut benefits, salaries, pensions and severance, he said. And some of Action’s trucks lack air conditioning, leaving drivers and workers vulnerable to heat exhaustion during the summer, according to the driver.

Action also has contracts with city hospitals and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, both of which expose trash workers to particularly risky waste. “When I’ve been servicing hospitals, it’s very dangerous,” he said. “I’ve found needles with syringes, IV bags full of blood. With the MTA garbage, sometimes we find drugs, and we find toxic stuff people throw in the garbage. I strongly believe we deserve higher pay.”

An Action spokesperson said that the company “declines to respond to the untrue allegations made by an anonymous, obviously disgruntled employee.”

Accidents involving the commercial haulers are well-documented. Drivers with the private carting companies have killed 43 New Yorkers since 2010, according to data from the New York City Department of Transportation. In just the past year, at least three people, including one worker, have died at the hands of commercial trash truck drivers in New York City.

One night in July 2017, an Action Carting driver struck and killed cyclist Neftaly Ramirez in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as the New York Daily News, DNAinfo and the Brooklyn Paper reported. However, a New York Police Department investigation found no fault with the driver, according to an Action Carting spokesman, who said that the “accident in Greenpoint was truly tragic and terribly upsetting to the Action team,” which has been “been a leader in the industry in both innovation, environmental changes and safety.” The NYPD’s media office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Then, last November, a driver with Sanitation Salvage fatally hit a then-unnamed man who had reportedly jumped on the back of the truck and then fallen off in the Norwood section of the Bronx, police told the Daily News. In May, ProPublica reported that the unknown man was actually 21-year-old Mouctar Diallo, a helper at Sanitation Salvage who likely earned $30 to $80 a night to haul trash to the curb and ride the back of the truck. His identity only emerged after Sean Spence, the driver who killed him, ran over and killed someone else—72-year-old pedestrian Leon Clark on the street in the Morrisania section of the Bronx in April.

A Sanitation Salvage spokesman said that the company is “deeply saddened by these tragic accidents. For more than 30 years, the cornerstone of the company has been its commitment to safety and being a good neighbor.”

The Business Integrity Commission (BIC), the city agency that oversees the commercial trash industry, reportedly didn’t know that Diallo was a worker until January. And even after it learned the truth, it allowed the driver to continue working, according to ProPublica. After the investigative outlet’s story came out in early May, the BIC told reporters that it had begun an investigation into Sanitation Salvage that could result in the company’s operating license being revoked or the appointment of a monitor. The Bronx carter also suspended Spence because the BIC asked it to do so after the second accident. The BIC said it is currently investigating whether the driver’s commercial license should be suspended or revoked.

“Upon learning the driver lied to the city about the circumstances of this fatality, we requested the driver’s suspension and have been diligently investigating Sanitation Salvage and its practices,” BIC Commissioner Daniel Brownell said in a statement to CO. “If this investigation finds that Sanitation Salvage should no longer be operating on our streets, BIC can initiate the process to revoke the company’s license.”

A BIC spokesman added the agency was “working tirelessly to increase BIC’s authority to enforce safety regulations, which currently is limited. We are currently developing legislation that would allow BIC to promulgate safety rules. Once BIC has this authority, we will have a much wider range of tools available to compel safer conditions in this industry.”

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At a waste transfer station in Bushwick, workers separate trash and recycling, which then gets shipped off elsewhere. Photo: Rebecca Baird-Remba/For Commercial Observer

The city only has limited power to regulate the commercial haulers. The lack of oversight has helped engender a nocturnal Wild West landscape where companies compete to service the most customers as fast as possible, sometimes at the expense of their workers. The BIC is tasked with ensuring that the private carters don’t engage in fraud, racketeering, violence or other unsavory business practices. The enforcement agency was created in 1996 with the mission of eliminating organized crime from the commercial trash business, and it has been successful on that front. It has also been pushing commercial carting companies to upgrade their outdated diesel trucks for cleaner, newer vehicles that burn natural gas and come outfitted with lights, reflectors and cameras.

However, the BIC falls short of regulating worker safety. That responsibility lies with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has a limited number of inspectors to monitor a broad array of industries—including construction, agriculture and healthcare—across the state.

A coalition of progressive groups and the Teamsters argue that the significant regulatory holes could be patched if the city created an exclusive zone system, where one garbage hauler would be assigned to each neighborhood. They posit that there would be environmental benefits: trucks would travel fewer miles and cause less disruption to neighborhoods that have become accustomed to dozens of trucks rumbling through per night. And shorter routes would create fewer incentives for companies to abuse their workers. Reform-minded groups also see the zone system as a mechanism to kick out bad actors among the carters. It could also help raise the revenue needed for a regulatory body, whether it’s BIC or DSNY, to hire more staff and enforce stricter rules about worker safety and recycling. Each hauler would get a valuable, long-term franchise contract for their zone, and the city would set the terms of the agreements, giving it leverage to impose reforms on the hauling companies, argue zone system advocates.

“You can get safer streets, you can get safer working conditions for these workers who face really onerous and dangerous conditions, and you can get the customers to reduce waste and landfilling if the system is set up correctly,” said Justin Wood, the director of organizing and strategic research for New York Lawyers for Public Interest, which is involved in the push for commercial waste zones.

New York City commercial trash trucks travel more than 23 million miles annually as they collect waste and recyclables from customers and then shuttle it to waste transfer stations in the outer boroughs, a 2016 DSNY study found. After analyzing the haulers’ routes, the researchers behind the report found that a zoned franchise system could reduce vehicle miles traveled by 49 to 68 percent, because the routes in a zone system could be three times as efficient as the current setup. The environmental benefits would also be substantial: the city’s commercial trash trucks currently produce an estimated 56,000 tons of carbon dioxide a year. With fewer trucks on the road, greenhouse gas emissions from the private carting industry would drop 42 to 64 percent and diesel fuel consumption would be reduced by 3.5 million gallons per year, according to the 2016 study.

The commercial haulers, on the other hand, fiercely oppose any measure that would eliminate companies from the market. Kendall Christensen, who represents the city’s 15 largest commercial carters as the head of New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management, noted that an exclusive zone system would heavily favor the large companies and knock out the smaller ones. Christensen and the other stakeholders that dislike the waste zone proposal point to Los Angeles as an example of how zones could go horribly awry. L.A. transitioned to exclusive zones last July, with seven haulers handling the waste across 11 geographic areas. Three zones were reserved for small haulers, with the aim of keeping a few local, mom-and-pop carters in the city, and four large companies were given contracts for the remaining eight zones.

L.A. City Council members panned the program, called RecycLA, as an “embarrassment” and a “hot mess” during a February hearing, according to The Los Angeles Times. Customers were seeing higher bills, surprise fees and thousands of missed pickups during the first seven months of the program.

“They had dozens of service complaints about trash not being picked up,” Christensen said. “They’ve sorted out the service side but they’re still stuck with prices that are double, triple and quadruple what they were before. The L.A. business community admits that they fell asleep during the planning process and didn’t wake up till they got their first bill last July. It gives New York a glimpse into what would happen.”

However, unlike New York City’s commercial waste industry, L.A. commercial haulers also pick up trash for multi-family residential buildings with more than three units. When the trash companies started introducing extra fees for having to go around locked gates or navigating other hurdles, L.A. landlords felt blindsided. That wouldn’t happen in New York, argue pro-zone advocates, because commercial carters don’t handle residential trash. The BIC also caps the per-pound cost of commercial trash pickup in New York City, and those same rules outlaw similar surcharges here.

Rob Nothoff, who helped spearhead RecycLA in his role as director of waste campaigns for the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, claimed complaints about missed pickups have declined 99 percent since February. The L.A. city government simply rolled out the zone system too quickly, he said, and both the haulers and the customers weren’t given enough time to sort out the finer points of the program.

He argued that customers and the city were already seeing significant benefits from RecycLA. The commercial waste companies, with the help of the city, have spent $200 million on new natural gas-powered trucks, safety equipment, and the construction of new, enclosed waste transfer facilities. Customers have also been recycling significantly more since RecycLA started, he said. Haulers must offer recycling services for free, and customers receive increasing discounts on their monthly bills as they recycle more. L.A. has also successfully diverted 746 tons of food to needy families that would otherwise have gone to the landfill, and the city now collects 375,000 cubic yards of recyclables each week.

There were other bumps in the L.A. rollout that could be avoided if a similar system were implemented in New York. Haulers that took over the new L.A. zones realized that the companies who had previously serviced their accounts had simply left town, locked up their bins, and took their customers’ information with them. And the new haulers struggled to contact landlords who lived out of state or out of the country to adjust their buildings’ trash rates or educate them on how the new commercial waste system worked.

New York, however, is taking a more free-market approach to reforming its private garbage hauling industry. In May, after two years of meetings with labor unions, commercial haulers and business groups, DSNY unveiled what it thought was a compromise. It hopes to implement a non-exclusive zone system that would allow three to five carters in a zone.

Although the sanitation department hasn’t released a full-fledged plan yet, DSNY Commissioner Kathryn Garcia told CO that the agency plans to impose recycling standards and to create incentives for carters and their clients to recycle organic, compostable material, like food waste and yard clippings. First, carters will bid to the city for each zone. If a hauler receives a long-term contract, it will be responsible for educating each commercial customer in the zone about its prices and services. DSNY will educate customers about the new system and the available haulers as well.

“The goal is to have a robust private carting sector that is able to meet customers needs and able to achieve more efficiency for safety and for the environment,” Garcia said, referencing the city’s goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030 and reducing its emissions 80 percent by 2050. She added that having competition between carters within the zones would help keep prices low. It would also allow smaller companies to remain in the market, because in an exclusive zone system, larger companies usually emerge as the winners of contracts valued in the hundreds of millions.

The commissioner emphasized that creating zones, and giving the haulers much shorter routes, would help alleviate the problems of drivers rushing to complete lengthy routes and workers getting injured on the job.

“There is an inherent problem with these horrifically long routes, and the zone system is the only way we’re going to see improvements in vehicle miles traveled and safety,” Garcia said. “As I told the carters, I’m not trying to make it so you have a tough time doing business. I know you have to be there to get the commercial refuse off the street. And I want you to be healthy companies moving forward. I would just like you to stop hitting people.”

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Workers load cardboard boxes destined for a recycling facility into a commercial trash truck. Photo:Photo: Rebecca Baird-Remba/For Commercial Observer

The BIC and DSNY also plan to craft legislation that will empower one or both agencies to enforce safety and environmental standards against the haulers. The Sanitation Department will unveil its full implementation plan for the zones later this summer, followed by several public hearings.

The non-exclusive zone proposal has inspired ire from both sides of the commercial waste debate, because it doesn’t satisfy the goals of carting companies, landlords or reformers. Real Estate Board of New York’s general counsel, Carl Hum, argued that the plan would raise costs and limit when customers could put out their trash without significantly reducing the number of miles traveled by trash trucks.

“With a franchising system there’s going to be a carter that says we can only pick up from 1 a.m. to 3 a.m.,” said Hum, which could be a big problem for restaurants, bars and supermarkets. He also posited that there was a “loose causal relationship between imposing this system and improving worker safety. You don’t need this system of franchising to address [safety issues]; it’s analogous to trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer.” Knocking the majority of carting companies out of the market with a franchise system would also mean fewer jobs for “people who have less than a college education, who need a second chance,” he said.

Norman Steissel, who served as city sanitation commissioner from 1978 to 1986 under Mayor Ed Koch, said that big commercial landlords fought back against his efforts to create a zoned commercial waste system while he was in office. Office and retail property owners and tenants don’t want to lose the flexibility of being able to put out their trash when and how they want.

“If you can’t get building owners to agree to it you won’t get the upside,” he said, adding that the politics of creating a franchised system “runs into the buzzsaw of…the realities of commercial life in New York City.”

The city could reform the private carters and impose new recycling measures if it expanded the enforcement powers, staff and funding for the BIC, Steissel explained. Councilman Robert Cornegy introduced a bill two weeks ago that would expand the BIC’s scope and potentially allow it to set better safety and environmental standards for the industry, he said. That approach appeals to the business community and could help deliver the reforms that progressive groups seek.

“Now is the time to increase safety and reduce wasteful greenhouse gas emissions in our city’s sprawling commercial waste industry,” Cornegy said in a statement. “Our legislation is designed to achieve these crucial goals quickly and effectively—and without waiting years for a zone-based plan that would lead to unintended negative consequences for workers and small businesses.”

REBNY also backs Cornegy’s legislation. Its president, John Banks, said in a statement yesterday that he supports the bill because it gives “BIC the additional tools it needs to increase safety, reduce environmental impacts, and ensure fair wages across the industry.”

Garcia, the city’s sanitation commissioner, slammed Cornegy’s bill because it doesn’t get at “at the core challenges this industry has. You have to structurally change how [the haulers] work in order to get them to be safer.” She felt that the bill was “mainly designed to block the implementation of zoned collection.”

In addition, the non-exclusive system wouldn’t give the city the same kind of leverage to reform the commercial waste industry or impose new standards about safety, recycling or emissions, according to the Teamsters and activists.

“We don’t want to see another race to the bottom between companies in a way that negatively impacts the workers in the nonexclusive zones,” said Wood of the New York Lawyers for Public Interest. “An exclusive zone system where the ultimate punishment is losing your lucrative zone seems like a big penalty. You have this threat of liquidating damages and rebidding the zone [to other haulers].” He added that tracking recycling rates and requiring certain levels of service becomes much easier with only one or two companies per zone.

The non-exclusive proposal “is not the kind of system we envision,” said Maritza Silva-Farrell, the head of ALIGN, a coalition of activist groups and labor unions. “This will be a patch to a hole  but it won’t be transforming the system, which is really what we need right now. We have to think about how the city can actually protect those black and brown workers and protect those communities affected by commercial waste.”