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Sanitation Workers in Charlotte Feel Endangered in Crisis

As an employee at the City of Charlotte Solid Waste Services department (SWS), which collects garbage, recycling and other waste from Charlotte’s residents, Joshua has seen his workplace change dramatically to combat the spread of COVID-19. But he and many of his coworkers in the sanitation field are worried that it hasn’t changed enough.

“You on edge,” explained Joshua, whose name has been changed so that he could speak freely. “It’s like, man, I have to pray before I get in my truck every day. When you’re dealing with trash, you really don’t know what you’re dealing with. You could be picking up someone’s trash and not knowing that someone is sick.”

After Mayor Vi Lyles declared a state of emergency in response to COVID-19 on March 15, the Charlotte City Workers Union (CCWU), a chapter of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, issued a letter to Lyles and City Manager Marcus Jones calling for “commonsense measures” to protect public service workers and other community members. Those measures included providing adequate personal protective equipment, free COVID-19 testing, free childcare for local government employees, granting double time hazard pay and staggered shifts so as to observe social distancing.

Over 200 city workers signed a petition supporting these measures, which CCWU delivered along with the letter.

Initially, the city granted a staggered schedule to all employees. But by April 6, SWS had scrapped the staggered schedule and ordered automatic truck drivers to return to work. The union condemned the change, stating in another letter that the return to normal schedules “will certainly increase the number of infections of employees.”

In a press release issued on April 7, the CCWU alleges that the change was made in response to complaints from residents who did not like that the staggered schedules led to later pick-ups.

“Does this mean that the city is more concerned about rich people having their trash picked up at 7 p.m., rather than the lives of sanitation workers?” the release asks.

CCWU also detailed the workplace conditions under COVID-19, stating that workers were not supplied with any masks or hand sanitizer and only given one pair of latex gloves per day. The union decried rumors of a 3% salary increase for hazard pay.

“The City is sitting on 16% reserves totaling over $116 million for a ‘rainy day,’ and meanwhile the City Council has not even convened a meeting since March 16,” stated Dominic Harris, president of the CCWU, in the press release. “They need to immediately call a meeting and release these funds to defend essential city workers.”

In an email, SWS spokesperson Brandi Williams defended the current personal protective equipment policy: “[C]rews are provided with personal protective equipment to include masks, hand sanitizers, wipes and gloves for everyone. We also conducted respirator training for those who want to use respirators.”

Charlotte Solid Waste Services
Other union members from the area have showed their support to SWS workers. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

When asked about access to N95 masks, Joshua said the training only showed how to use the masks, and didn’t actually provide them.

“They didn’t have those masks for us. They told us that it was on order,” he said.

Joshua also alleged that sanitation workers only get one pair of latex gloves per day, and have trouble accessing adequate hand sanitizer and disinfectant.

“They gave us disinfectant wipes, but they would only give you one [per day],” he said. “You’re getting in and out of your truck, you’re working through the day, but you’ve only got one pair of gloves and one wipe. It’s not affecting anything.”

Employees have also noted concerns about SWS accelerating its training program for automated garbage truck drivers. The training process typically takes four weeks, enough time to give new drivers ample time to get used to driving a bulkier vehicle from the right-hand side.

CCWU alleges that the department is unsafely expediting the process by attempting to train new drivers in only a week.

Joshua confirmed that SWS has offered a $100 bonus to sanitation drivers who complete the automation training in a week. CCWU worries that this could lead to even more accidents and injuries.

“One week is not long enough for automation training,” said Joshua, who has experience with driving automatic trucks. “Drivers can get relaxed, they can get in accidents, they can tear up mailboxes … Are you saying that my life and my health is only worth $100?”

In an email, Williams stated that SWS hoped to “make a full transition to automated-only collection using all available drivers.”

CCWU also cited the recent death of Adrian Grubbs, an employee at Raleigh’s Solid Waste Department, as cause for concern. A father of three, Grubbs tested positive for COVID-19 and died shortly thereafter. In the April 7 press release, CCWU expressed concerns “about their own health and safety … especially as the number of positive test results and deaths continue to climb.”

Grubbs’ death is all the more reason for a staggered schedule, Harris said: “We should not have to risk our lives because rich people want trash collected before dark.”

With all this in mind, CCWU launched another petition to secure double hazard pay, increased personal protective equipment, a complete return to the staggered work schedule and daily screenings for COVID-19 symptoms. With 265 signatures and counting, there is hope that the city government will give their demands more consideration.

The city manager recently recommended that the city give a 5% “premium pay” increase to first responders and other city employees who have frequent, direct contact with the public such as sanitation workers — a suggestion that Harris said “is not enough.”

Joshua agreed.

“They need to pay sanitation workers a lot more attention,” he said. “Definitely think about hazard pay, and not just give us pennies, because it may just be the cost of our lives.”

With the next city council meeting set for April 27, workers hope to gain more ground. Above all, Joshua hopes to see more unity from the city.

“It’s not just about me picking up trash; it’s making sure that we feel that we are loved and that we’re all in this together. Don’t just think about one side or one group of people.”

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