Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sanitation work is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States at the best of times; during a pandemic, it becomes even more so. Kevin Clark works at Republic Services, one of the largest waste hauling companies in America, and he is a member of Teamsters Local 667 in Memphis, Tennessee. (It’s worth remembering that it was Memphis sanitation workers whose 1968 strike against awful working conditions brought Martin Luther King Jr. to the city where he was assassinated; there the workers, all of them black, marched carrying signs that read “I Am A Man.”) Clark has been with Republic for twenty years and in that time has repeatedly fought the company over personal protective equipment (PPE) and safety concerns.
In those twenty years, Clark’s never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic, though. He and his fellow drivers “are afraid right now,” he said. “We don’t know what we’re being exposed to.” The company’s stepped-up safety procedures amount to “a big bucket of wipes in the break room. And they have given us black surgical gloves that the mechanics use when they’re working on the vehicles, but other than that we don’t have any kind of surgical masks or protective equipment.”
The daily routine hasn’t changed much for Clark, but for other drivers things have changed—commercial waste pickup is way down because restaurants and other customer-facing businesses are closed. But the pandemic shows just how untenable the normal conditions of the job are.
Years ago, Clark said, they used to have PPE for the drivers that hauled asbestos, but about six years back they stopped giving them the safety gear. “They said we didn’t need it. They used to make us take a test—we would have to go see a doctor, and they would give us a breath test to see how our breathing was, and they would give us respirators and the Tyvek suits, so when we did have to haul it, we would be protected, and they took that away from us.” Since then, he said, they’ve been fighting for protective gear. “We used to have customers that dealt with sewage, human waste, and we asked for [PPE] to keep it from splashing on us when they were dumping the loads, and they wouldn’t give it to us then.” Fast forward to today, when, he said, they still pick up waste from six hospitals in Memphis, and though different drivers pick up the hospital waste—including, he said, “the blood and amputated body parts and stuff like that, needles”—it gets dumped in with the regular trash. “When the bulldozer pushes it up, it still leaves the stuff on the ground, and you’re walking on it. We’ve complained, and every now and then they move it, but then they put it right back in the regular garbage.”
“These are the conditions that we work in,” he noted. “And they fight us, when it’s contract time, for every last penny, but they really don’t know that every day our job is hazardous.”
The company told them, he said, to practice social distancing, but it’s not enough. They’ve staggered start times, so that not all the drivers are there at once, but Clark himself has had a trainee driving with him for the last few weeks. “We sit two feet apart, in the same truck. We’re both good, but I don’t want to make him sick, and I don’t want him to make me sick.”
There are two different landfills in Memphis to which they haul trash, he said, but at one of them, drivers are not allowed to use the office building to use the restrooms or wash up. “What they did was put two porta-potties out and said the drivers can use these, but they didn’t give them anything to wash their hands with, or sanitize their hands.”
“Using it during normal times is bad enough,” Clark said. But during a pandemic, “they should provide more. We need the Tyvek suits, we need masks—I’m not asking for the N-95 that the doctors use, but it would be nice to have something. They could provide hand sanitizer—right about now, it’s hard to find it, because everybody has just bought it. So we get a Styrofoam cup and fill it up with all the wipes in the morning, and that’s what we wipe our hands with.”
They also don’t know, he said, what the procedure should be if they do get sick. “We know what the federal guidelines are. But they’ve not come to the drivers and let them know what do you do if you wake up and you feel it in your throat or you’re running a fever,” he said. “They’re not doing any kind of temperature checks when you come to work. It would be nice if they showed a little bit more responsibility. But their priority is for us to service the customers, and if we get sick, then we’ll have to deal with it.”
The union was able to win them two extra sick days a year—from five up to seven—in the last contract, Clark said. For long-term workers like him, they can carry over their days from the previous year if they don’t use them, so he’s got nine to use should he get ill. But nine days doesn’t cover the recommended fourteen-day quarantine for anyone with coronavirus. After that, he’d have to use vacation.
The long history of battles over asbestos and medical waste left Clark doubtful that the company would provide additional protective gear. “This company does have a history of not showing the proper respect for those who really get out there and do the work in order for them to make money. Out here, we’re pretty much on our own.”
Sarah Jaffe is a reporting fellow at the Type Media Center, the author of Necessary Trouble: American in Revolt, and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.