It’s a hot summer morning in June, and the steam rises off the wet asphalt up at the top of Ravine Street. A rogue cloudburst gave it a good soaking. To the exurban ear, the garbage truck idling there makes a sound as familiar as distant chainsaws or revving dirt-bike engines.
The packer blade which sweeps the garbage inward from the back of the truck receives its strength from a hydraulic pump linked to the engine’s transmission through a gearbox called a power take-off (PTO). When the PTO is engaged and the trash is cycled into the interior and compacted, the garbage truck roars.
“The driver actually had to be pretty quick on us,” says John Houghtaling, a retired DPW employee, “because you know, we were running. Yeah, our driver knows which way we were going and everything like that. And you know, you shout: Go! Pick it up!
“Pick it up was the part about switching on the power take-off. I would stand on a corner and the guy on the back of the truck was dumping in the trash. And just to expedite, he would throw the empty cans across the road to me, and I would catch them!”
Before the new “arm trucks” came along in 2013, tossing these receptacles through the air was feasible. A 32-gallon can was the size limit per the City of Kingston charter.
The laborers prefer the job title of sanitation engineer, but they’re not fooling themselves. They now have 96-gallon cans to wrestle out to the open back of the truck. The hydraulic arm takes it from there. Dumps it all in the hopper, and gives the empty can back. This is called the dump cycle. The companies manufacturing these automated robot arms brag about shaving a few seconds off the process. Over the course of the work day, the seconds saved add up.
The laborer brings the empty can back to the curb and so on to the next address. With a rear-loader garbage truck or “packer,” this is what municipal refuse collection looks like.
There’s a metal handle on the outside of the packer, towards the rear. It’s used to swing up on to a low step just outside the hopper for a ride-along, or the laborer can simply walk alongside like one of Hannibal’s soldiers.
Each packer is captained by a driver licensed to operate large vehicles. He can sit in the air-conditioned cab while one or two laborers hustle outside on the road. Most of the trucks in Kingston are double-axle, meaning the tonnage of waste they can carry is relatively limited. The trucks might see anywhere from ten to 15 tons a day.
“Eleven tons is 22,000 pounds,” says John Smith, a retired laborer. “50 to 60 pounds at a pop, you know. The guys were going out there every day lifting at least eleven tons 11 tons, 13 tons, if that’s what you’re filling the truck with, that was all your back. People were destroying their backs. It was your shoulders. It’s your knees. That’s your body.”
Everyone interviewed had a litany of injuries to report. They came to the DPW young and full of cocksure vigor, but over the course of a career in sanitation, little by little, their bodies were ground down like old cars. Bushings and joints need to be replaced. Original equipment gets swapped out for aftermarket.
“Oh yeah, I’ve had surgeries,” says Smith. “I’ve had five hernias. I’ve got six titanium screws in my hand. I had knee surgery on one. Injections in both. I got bulging discs, herniated discs, deteriorating discs. Nerve damage. Back in the old day everyone’s wearing their bodies out. Then as time went on people started saying, look, come on, let’s wisen up! Let’s work smarter, not harder!”
The crews go out at 6 a.m. in the summer, an hour earlier than in winter, to minimize exposure to the rising temperatures, but there’s no beating the heat and anyway, weather is a feature of the job.
“I’ll take the heat,” says Jefferson, a laborer and union activist. “It’s so cold on some days in the winter that you can spit off the back of the truck and it freezes before it hits the ground.”
“No, man. The opposite,” Jefferson’s co-worker disagrees. “Summertime, you take the lid off the top of the cans and here’s the top of the can, it’s moving! Moving with maggots. It’s friggin’ gross. And this time of the year, the roaches breed. You pick the can up, you dump it and the roaches just, I mean, thousands of them, they just crawl up the truck out of the truck on the ground. There’s so many hazards on the back of them trucks.”
Insects are the least of them.
Collecting garbage is the fifth deadliest job in America
“It’s not only the health, you know,” says Mike MacCreery, a retired foreman. “You’re out there riding on the truck and the thunder and lightning starts, and you’re holding on to a big, metal rod, right? How many times was I out there in that pouring rain? Thunder? You know, get those get those thunderstorms that you see the lightning and hear the crack at the same time? Come too freaking close!”
According to statistics compiled nationally by OSHA, collecting garbage is the fifth deadliest job in America, riskier than wearing a gun and badge or putting out fires.
Riding outside the truck. Lugging the totes across traffic routes. Operating heavy machinery.
Tales of mishaps abound.
“All the moving parts on the back of that truck,” says MacCreery, “could take an arm off. And when you’re riding on the back of the truck, you know, at any point in time, you’ve got to get off that truck. There’s handles there that could grab your vest. And drag you along. It’s a very dangerous job.”
“The biggest concern is stuff flying out the back of the hopper when the truck is cycling the garbage from the hopper to inside the body,” says Jefferson. “I recall a laborer who was hit in the head by something shot out and he ended up in the ICU with a head injury.”
While compacting garbage, the hydraulic pumps are capable of operating pressures of 2300 psi. The floor and the walls in the packer are built to handle forty times that. A small double axle loader, when full, can carry 32,000 lbs.
“We also had a man who was run over. The driver had pulled up into a dead end and went to back out and the gentleman was behind him. He slipped getting on to the rear step next to the hopper and went down under the truck. Lost his sense of smell. Lost his sense of taste. The truck backed over him and he lost half his face. I mean, he’s still alive. He came back to work. And, there’s a man that should be living very well. And he didn’t get anything.”
A terrible accident is the sort of thing that forces change into any system.
“Back in the day they had stint,” says Smith. “You did the job. Foreman checked it out. Streets were cleaned. Faster you did the job, the faster you went home. It could have been like four or five hours and you got paid for eight. But then some guys were ruining it because they’re doing shortcuts. Somebody else would have to go back and pick it up. So then they eventually, you know, you caught hell for it. If you screwed up, you suffered the consequences.”
Attempts to separate the municipal solid waste seem surprisingly modern.
“There used to be two trucks picking up metal on Fridays, these were the good days,” says Smith. “We used to separate out good metal and take it down for scrap and split the money between the three guys, buy your coffee and lunch and nobody said anything. It was just a perk but now it’s, you know, the city gets the money, which I guess they should. We used to pick everything up in the garbage. Trash. Refrigerators. Dryers. The resident didn’t use to pay for that. You know, a public service. You also had a cardboard truck. You had a paper truck. Your cardboard was separate from your paper, and they had the blue square tote for newspaper. You had recycling trucks, you had yard waste trucks out there every day, you know, clippings and leaves. You even had trucks out there just to pick up boards. Then they started doing things differently.”
The workers who were there remember the days of stint fondly, while also confessing the dangers were greater. But then there were more workers as well.
“During the stint, we were doing two sides of the street,” says MacCreery. “So the constant pounding on the legs, the feet, the back, back and forth across the street. And yeah, it’s dangerous because you’re out there trying to get the job done. You’re trying to cross the street. And the drivers don’t care. They will cut you off. They’re trying to get to work. Well, we’re already at work. The street is our office. But it was a good place to work when you had a bunch of guys and I had a lot of fun. This day and age it’s not about fun. It’s about what we can get done and how much more can we do with less, meaning less laborers. Back in the day we had more guys and you could get a lot done without killing yourself.”
“You had a lot of respect from residents because you took care of them. And they took care of you,” says Smith. “There was times that they give me a tip or something like that. People don’t tip me like they used to because management screwed up so much. Now you’re charging people to pick up an appliance and yet the city’s getting paid for the junk. To me, that’s a double standard. Yeah, I gotta pay you $20 to pick up my refrigerator. And now you’re taking it to the dump and you’re getting paid the junk dump price.”
Different philosophies in refuse collection rose to ascendance in the intervening years while cost-cutting measures pared down the workforce. Since they cut the total number of staff down, they sometimes have to cancel garbage pickup. They don’t have enough drivers on the payroll to plow. And with fewer employees there’s a concurrent trend towards privatizing the work formerly handled by DPW in general, of which sanitation is a department.
Mayor [James] Sotille, he’s the one that changed the stint work to all day. Enthusiasm for single stream, or co-mingled garbage collection dominated the second decade of the new century before the DPW thought better of it in 2019.
Co-mingled collection is out. It too often leads to contamination. Buyers of recycling want the product as pure as possible. The fleet of trash collection trucks now stands at two arm trucks and three old-style trucks (those without the automated arms) on trash. Two arm trucks and one old truck on recycling.
“It’s not enough they have your body”
This is a city job, and if retirement with a pension is the goal in this highly strung and corporately micromanaged decade, the ideal laborer must exhibit a positive attitude toward company, customer and municipal goals at all times. That is, you are to smile while you eat whatever is being served for as long as the DPW is serving it. Presently, what they’re serving starts right around 21 dollars an hour plus benefits for which the goalposts for retirement continue to be moved farther down the field.
The old formula for when retirement became available was a graceful equation. The magic sum to arrive at was 85. That is, 30 years on the job plus 55 years of age and then you were free to take up oil painting or cultivate geraniums with a full pension. Under updated rules, a worker can no longer retire until the age 63 and must now contribute three percent of their wages over the course of their entire career. It used to be that the three percent was kicked into the kitty for only the first ten years.
“So what’re you doing with all the money I put into the system all these years?” asks Smith. “Now, Social Security upgraded to where they want retirement age to be 67 or even 72. That’s crazy! Because Social Security don’t want to fucking pay people their benefits. They’re hoping everybody dies before they got to fork that money out.”
Well, things change. The starting salary for a career in engineering from the back of a truck was recently raised to $47,500 annually, or $22.77 an hour. “When I started back in the Nineties, it was $9.52 an hour,” notes Smith. “It wasn’t a chosen profession for me. It was the best-paying and most-benefits job in the area at the time. Probably still is.”
The politics of most of the men riding on the back of the trucks tilt to the right. Jefferson theorizes that this may be because those whose politics swing to the left think they are above the job in the first place. Someone should take a poll.
A number of the workers interviewed for this article bristled at the politically correct climate which had fallen like an invisible dome down over their department.
“It used to be fun,” says Chuck Landri, a laborer who moved out of sanitation and into a different department. “It was hard work, but it didn’t matter what you said to each other. Joking, you know? And joking about joking. It’s not enough that they have your body. They want your mind, too. But they don’t pay you enough for that. Everything is so uptight now. The people passing down the rules aren’t picking up the trash. You can bid on other jobs in the city when they open up, but the more favorable laborers’ positions are normally handed out to the department heads’ pets. The men on the back of the trucks are the hardest and most dedicated city employees. They get little to no respect from management. Actually, they are looked down upon by management. Good luck to the new guys.”
“I haven’t smelled trash in six months, and I don’t want to smell it”
It’ll probably surprise no one that the hard work done out there on the trash pickup route is easy to take for granted. It should be understood that the dignity of all mankind extends to these workers as well. They are doing the things that need to be done that others would prefer not to do. And no city can function for long without them, a fact the DPW understands only too well.
The trash in Paris, France at one time was piled so high outside the city walls that the realization came that a landfill was needed. Laborers were needed to transport the refuse. Royalty never dirties its own nails.
With the leverage of a lifetime pension held over the heads of these essential employees, who did not see an increase in their pay during the pandemic, many of the laborers who spoke to us for this article did so anonymously. The rest were retired, and could say whatever they pleased.
Mike MacCreery reflects upon retirement. “I haven’t smelled trash in six months, and I don’t want to smell it,” he said. “I don’t want to smell it. But it’s like no matter where you go on vacation, there’s always this stinking trash truck, and it’s like, really? But that was my job!”