On a wet, cold spring night, well after sundown, the ordeal begins.
About 4,000 people, mostly young black and Hispanic men, climb waste collection trucks in various states of repair and race across the five boroughs to pick up the 10,000 tons of trash pushed out onto the curb by New York City’s businesses every night.
wo union organizers set out in an SUV for an all-night sojourn, following trucks, watching their practices, explaining to a reporter the intricacies of how the driver and helper on each truck conduct themselves. It’s not long before differences between trucks and companies become apparent.
Some of the trucks are brightly painted. All of their lights are working. The workers are dressed in reflective vests; they have gloves and sturdy boots. They lift their loads quickly and efficiently, using their legs and springing upward in a single motion.
Other trucks are missing lights. Their workers wear street clothes with no reflective gear. Some have no gloves. They bend at the waist, causing untold strain on their backs, tossing the bags into the unforgiving maw of the mechanical compactor.
By the end of his shift — anywhere from 12 to 16 hours — one man can pick up as much as 20 tons by hand. One driver can drive more than 100 miles every night.
As dawn approaches, trucks begin sidling up to a transfer station in North Brooklyn, belching exhaust as they wait their turn to unload the night’s haul into an open garage the size of a small airplane hangar.
Inside, piles of bottles and glass and plastic bags are mixed with rotten food and other refuse. If there is any separation of recyclable materials, it doesn’t happen here. Bulldozers push the refuse into small hills.
From the ceiling, at regular intervals, what look like large puffs of steam blow down onto the workers, the drivers and the refuse. They are chemicals, meant to neutralize the overwhelming stench produced by the piles. If the workers have masks at all, they are the white paper kind found in hardware stores.
When workers inside the station see the union men, they close the garage door.
IN THE BEST SCENARIO, A WASTE collector will suffer chronic back pain, joint fatigue and sleep deprivation. In the worst, his life is what Thomas Hobbes might have called “nasty, brutish and short.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics lists refuse collection, both public and private, as one of the 10 most dangerous occupations in America based on fatalities, far more than those of police or firefighters. When one accounts for physical degradation and quality of life, the statistics become far more perilous.
New York City’s Department of Sanitation is among the most respected in the country. Its workers, who are Teamsters, work no more than eight hours a day, are paid close to $80,000 a year and enjoy generous benefit packages. They collect 10,500 tons of refuse each day from city residents and institutions.
In comparison, the private carting industry in New York City is a largely unregulated enterprise where more than 100 carting companies, large and small, compete to pick up the refuse of 100,000 businesses. In one night, some 20 trucks from different companies could visit a single city block, bringing with them all the concomitant emissions, traffic and safety concerns.
The top 15 private carters in New York handle about 70 percent of the city’s commercial waste. The biggest, Action Carting, has about 16,400 customers, according to the Business Integrity Commission, the city agency directly responsible for regulating the private waste carters.
Interviews with workers, observations of conditions on routes and at transfer stations and examinations of records, reports and legal documents reveal vast differences among those carters that operate in the commercial waste arena. Many of the companies, large and small, provide decent pay and benefits, place a premium on safety and adhere to rigorous collections standards. But there is abundant evidence that others, known by critics as “low-road,” treat workers with a Dickensian level of indifference.
Private haulers say that between the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the city Department of Transportation and the Business Integrity Commission, they are highly regulated and must follow rigorous protocol. But industry critics say that enforcement is lax and much of the industry’s regulation is self-reported.
The BIC was designed to rid waste carting of organized crime, but after the crime families were largely chased from the industry in the 1990s, its brief became murky. Now, the agency monitors what companies are operating and what equipment they are using, but outside of OSHA, the welfare of workers has little official channel for grievance.
“What’s not part of our regulation is the working conditions,” BIC Chair Daniel Brownell said at a City Council hearing last year. “When there are safety conditions, we’re happy to take that information.”
The Teamsters and a large coalition of environmental and labor advocacy groups argue that lack of intervention has bred in some companies an insatiable desire for profit at the expense of workers’ and residents’ safety and decent recycling practices.
In response to protests from advocacy groups, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has committed to a long-term study of the industry, expected out this spring. Part of the study will examine the potential creation of a new commercial zone, or franchising, system in which one carting company gets a contract to serve an entire section of the city.
The private carting industry argues such a regime would kill free competition and eliminate hundreds of decent working-class jobs. They argue industry critics are exaggerating problems with working conditions in order to push for franchising, which would likely benefit organized labor. Larger outfits will likely be the beneficiaries of a franchising system; the smaller firms fear they will be swallowed up or driven out of business altogether.
For many of the industry’s critics, that can’t happen quickly enough.
SIDNEY MARTHONE, 27, SPEAKS SOFTLY in broken English. He emigrated to the U.S. from Haiti when he was 21 and lives with his wife in Brooklyn.
For two years, Marthone worked as a helper on the back of a truck belonging to Five Star Carting. While both members of a truck’s two-man crew are expected to lift bags, loaded with anything from rotten chicken bones to medical waste, the helper tosses most of the night’s 18 to 20 tons into the steel belly of the truck.
Marthone talks with his hands often masking the still-boyish features of his face. His left middle finger droops beneath the others. It is missing the part where his fingernail should be.
“The container slipped on my finger, and I caught it,” he said.
On a Wednesday night in November, Marthone was en route with his driver. He had worked 15 hours the night before.
A dumpster owned by Five Star was the pickup. It was supposed to have a metal pin on each side to latch onto the truck and get lifted and emptied into the compactor, but one had broken off. That’s not uncommon, and the dumpster can still be lifted onto the truck. The crew can’t be on the streets too long after daybreak, so each stop has to happen as quickly as possible.
The container slipped from its bearings and severed the top of Marthone’s finger. His driver radioed to Five Star headquarters and, rather than call 911, took him to a nearby nursing home along their route. The driver spoke with his supervisor again and told Marthone he had to take him somewhere else.
“I said I’m not going anywhere,” Marthone said, recalling the night.
An ambulance finally came and took him to the hospital.
Marthone said he tried in vain to get guidance from Five Star as to how he could pay for his surgery. It was weeks before he heard back.
The Teamsters Local 813 caught wind of his story. They asked him to speak at a public rally in North Brooklyn focused on Five Star and its operations. They helped get him a lawyer. It was only then, Marthone said, that he heard back from the company.
“Nobody called me to tell me what happened. They didn’t do nothing,” he said.
In an email to POLITICO New York, Nino Tristani, one of Five Star’s owners, denied everything Marthone and others alleged. “All of the allegations made by the former Five Star Carting employees you spoke to are wholly and completely false,” Tristani said.
Marthone has photographs of his bloody severed finger, as well as the broken Five Star cart.
In a follow-up email, a spokesman for the company, Ara Chekmayan, denied Five Star containers had any pins, despite the photograph. He said the company followed procedures properly in handling Marthone’s workers’ compensation claims.
It’s been six months since Marthone was injured, and he hasn’t worked in that time. When he was working, with overtime, he said he earned $800 a week. Between November and April, he said he received a total of $300 in workers’ compensation from Five Star.
Records kept by the BIC show that Five Star received at least 30 violations in 2014 and 2015 — the fourth most in the city in that period — for offenses ranging from not properly marking receptacles to switching license plates on trucks and driving vehicles that weren’t registered with the BIC.
Five Star has about 9 percent of the city’s business, according to BIC records from 2015, making it one of the city’s five largest carting companies. But a company’s size does not determine its practices; small companies with only a few trucks can follow rigorous safety standards, while larger ones may flout them openly.
“AS A WORKER, YOU ARE TREATED like the truck. You are treated like a machine,” said Carl Orlando, a former sanitation worker for Liberty Ashes who says he has worked in all aspects of the industry, from hauling garbage to office work to customer relations. He and several former co-workers have sued the company, accusing it of wage theft and other pay violations.
“There’s no training. There’s no safety meetings. There’s no gear. There is no taking days off. There’s no benefits. They don’t even pay overtime,” he said.
He, like others, stressed that not all private waste companies are the same, and that they vary widely in how they treat workers. But in his experience, the so-called “low-road” companies routinely put workers’ safety in jeopardy.
Like many workers in the industry, Orlando said he was paid for a fixed number of hours no matter how long he worked — something he and others say incentivizes dangerous habits. He said he was paid for a 10-hour day but routinely had to work 12-, 13-, even 14-hour shifts to complete his route.
“You want to get through it as quick as possible, because you don’t want that truck on the road as people are trying to go to work, and you have one truck out there trying to do the work of three,” Orlando said. “I’ve driven all night, didn’t stop for any red lights, went from one side of the street to the other, on the wrong side of the street, and I still couldn’t get it done.”
Wage theft is a common accusation against such companies. Three other workers — Marco Flores, Antonio Santos and Oscar Tudon — filed a class-action lawsuit against Five Star in July 2015 for unpaid wages.
The suit alleges the men “were not paid overtime premium pay for hours worked over forty (40) hours per week, did not receive wages for all hours worked, had meal breaks automatically deducted from their wages regardless of whether they actually took the full break, did not receive prevailing wages when they worked on public works projects, did not receive wage notice or proper wage statements.”
Workers say the companies have other means of skirting their obligations, too.
Juan Feliz worked for Mr. T’s Carting for close to 10 years. In 2013, at the age of 35, he was diagnosed with lung and throat cancer. He now speaks through a voicebox after surgery left a hole in his trachea.
After his diagnosis and first surgery, Feliz said his bosses treated him differently.
“When I went back to the company, I was treated worse than the garbage I was supposed to pick up,” he said.
Feliz said the company asked him to change doctors. Then he said the boss, Peter Toscano, told him he would have to wait for further treatment.
“Toscano said I had to wait until next year because I had exhausted my funds,” Feliz said.
As his medical bills piled up, Mr. T’s Carting suddenly asked Feliz to do something it never had before: take an off-site drug test. He typically took drug tests on site, according to a judge’s ruling.
He agreed to the off-site test, but it was scheduled for a cold day in January. As Feliz tried to get to the facility, he had trouble breathing. Blood started pouring from his tracheal tube, and he canceled the appointment. He rescheduled again, but when he arrived there was a long wait, and he left to pick up his 9-year-old daughter from school.
Mr. T’s fired him, accusing him of refusing to take the drug test. When he tried to collect unemployment, the company rejected his claim. Feliz filed an appeal.
“They abused me,” Feliz said in an interview. “They didn’t fight for me. They didn’t do anything.”
Thomas Toscano, the company’s CFO, said Feliz was misrepresenting how he was fired. He denied that Feliz was told he would have to wait for cancer treatments, and he said Feliz was asked to take an off-site test because he was absent from work.
“This was done on a Friday and he was instructed to go that day. Instead, he did not go til the following Wednesday or Thursday,” Toscano wrote in an email. “While he did test clean, we do not know if he would have tested clean on the Friday when he was instructed to go.”
In 10 years, Feliz had never tested positive for drug use, a judge wrote in a decision in Feliz’s unemployment case.
“We fired him for refusing to take the test when told to do so, and he signed a policy that stated this would be interpreted as a positive test,” Toscano said.
An unemployment appeals board judge took a different view, saying the Toscanos’ policy was confusing and inconsistent.
“As the claimant had never before been directed to take an off-site drug test and he had medical issues that morning, I conclude that the claimant had a compelling reason for not taking the drug test that day,” wrote Administrative Law Judge Justin Denton in a ruling awarding Feliz his benefits.
LAST APRIL, AT A CITY COUNCIL sanitation committee hearing called to investigate allegations of systemic problems in the city’s private hauling industry, two workers — Michael Bush and Carlton Darden — gave rare first-hand testimony in which they detailed poor safety practices, low and unpaid wages and an overall disdain for workers.
“I feel as if I’m a slave,” said Bush, another Five Star employee. “I feel used and degraded. I feel as if I’m nobody, but this job is a real responsibility to keep the streets of New York City clean.”
Their testimony marked a stunning departure from the industry norm, cloaked in silence. Workers rarely speak out, but the Teamsters have encouraged them with the promise of protection from retribution.
“It takes a lot of courage to come up here,” committee chair Antonio Reynoso told the pair. “I’ll be there with you guys through this whole process.”
Only a week later he would be called on to stand by his promise. Bush and Darden said they were fired Friday following their testimony.
POLITICO New York reported on the firings at the time, and Reynoso called a press conference and protest to be held in front of Five Star’s Maspeth headquarters. Before it happened, though, the two workers said Five Star had reinstated them. Though POLITICO had reviewed one worker’s termination statement, the company maintained it all was a misunderstanding.
“They should have never gotten fired in the first place. I’m still not happy,” Reynoso said at the time. “Even if they do get rehired, they’re going back to a place that doesn’t do justice to its workers.”
A report issued this month by the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a coalition of labor and worker safety advocates, described the private carting world as one rife with fatalities, injury and wage theft. But its list of workers killed on the job painted the bleakest picture.
Effrain Calderon, 47, was sorting through a pile of refuse at a facility run by Regal Recycling Company in 2005 when a front-end loader hit him and ran him over, according to the report.
Luis Camarillo, 18, was killed in 2013 when he was caught in the compactor of a truck owned by the Chambers Paper Fibers Corporation, the report said.
Shlomo Dahan, his son Harel Dahan and Rene Francisco Rivas were killed at a Regal plant in Jamaica, Queens, when they were overcome by hydrogen sulfide in a wastewater well that was not marked.
Aldo Cosme, 64, died while working at a Cooper Tank Recycling transfer station in July 2013, during a week of temperatures over 90 degrees. An OSHA investigation found he had been exposed to excessive heat caused by the combination of outdoor temperatures and the equipment, calling his death “a needless and preventable loss of life.”
The trade group that represents the carters, the National Waste and Recycling Association, has fought the allegations leveled by industry critics, saying opponents cherry-pick anecdotes to malign a whole industry.
He said the size and diversity of the coalition — which includes the Alliance for a Greater New York, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, Teamsters Joint Council 16 and Teamsters Local 813 — looking to reform the waste industry indicated the breadth and depth of the problem.
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