Confessions of a Sanitation Worker

Brian French was nearly crushed to death by a trash collection truck during a routine garbage run last winter. French was forced to react much faster than anyone should ever have to at 4 a.m. "I hopped over the hood of a parked car and slid off the side. I was lucky," says French, a sanitation worker of five years.

French had just stepped a few feet off the curb into the street with four oversized black trash bags in his hands. The driver had been blocking a driveway, and when he backed up to allow someone out, he failed to notice that French was walking towards the back of the garbage truck.

When the driver failed to stop, French was faced with the choice of being sandwiched between a parked car and the truck or leaping to safety. He dropped the bags of trash and instinct took over as he dove sideways over a brown sedan. French landed on the grass next to the curb as the driver stopped just short of the parked car. French got to his feet while his temper flared over his first encounter with peril in three years on the job.

French admits that he had some choice words for his driver. "I told him what I thought of his driving and suggested he belonged in the dump," he says. The driver left the sanitation business a few short months after that morning.

Although the near miss happened in just seconds, it was no less life threatening because of the size of the truck involved. Just three years ago, New York City sanitation worker Eva Barrientos, 41, was killed in Brooklyn while trying to clear trash that had jammed the truck's compactor. She was crushed by a lever lifting a steel trash bin.


Reeks of Danger

The position of sanitation worker routinely appears as one of the 10 most dangerous occupations, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Besides the hazards of being crushed and run over, sanitation workers have also been severely burned and even killed by handling hazardous materials. They just don't know what the next bag of trash will contain.

Kitty litter after a rainstorm is the biggest headache, according to Deuce the Garbage Man, who blogs anonymously about his experiences. A wet bag of litter is like hauling cement. Everyday burdensome trash such as this indicate how often people drag items to the curb without considering who hauls it away. Trash bags and barrels can contain everything from dead animals to rusty nails, so gloves are a must for every sanitation worker.

"Try to imagine the stench of dirty diapers mixed with rotting food mixed with maggots mixed with oil mixed with dog excrement, and you may have an idea of what my first few weeks smelled like," writes Nick Cardamone of the summer he spent hauling trash between his junior and senior years of college.

Sanitation workers do battle with ants and rodents in the early morning hours, but the worst pests can be nosy neighbors. "I don't want to talk about your neighbor's garbage. I just want to do my job and go home," says French. He has a built-in escape from any conversation though, because his office never stops rolling.


Bag of Gold

As sanitation workers learn to adjust to the smells and backaches, potential treasures await in the trash. French found a new car stereo system and blinds for his house. Deuce ended a shift with $30 in change in his pockets after somebody chose to throw it out rather than roll it. On hot summer days, friendly residents often leave cold sodas or beers. It's like a residential drive-through without your choice of flavor.

Working as a sanitation worker can even fulfill your community service requirement, as former Culture Club frontman Boy George found out in 2006. Boy George, whose real name is George O'Dowd, pleaded guilty to falsely reporting a burglary and was sentenced to five days of community service with the New York City Sanitation Department.

Even the garbage itself has value when trash collecting morphs into art collecting. New York City artist Justin Gignac sells New York City Garbage Sculptures, which are individually marked Lucite cubes filled with litter gathered from the street. Artist Christopher Goodwin of Washington D.C. puts trash in one-inch plastic balls. These "Trashballs" are dispensed from gumball machines in local cafes for 25 cents each. [www.guyclinch.blogspot.com].

"I wanted to package something that nobody in their right mind would buy. Who would buy trash?" says Gignac. As it turns out, a lot of people are looking to buy something they may later take back to the curb. Gignac has sold more than 1,000 Garbage Sculptures, and over 3,000 Trashballs have been dispensed.


Why Do It?

If commissioned art pieces don't pay the bills, the average sanitation worker in the United States still pulls in $20,381 to start, according to CareerBuilder.com. The average hourly rate for a trash collector in New York City is $24.81, based on statistics from Payscale.com. With overtime and union scale increases, the annual salary of a trash collector can double in five years.

Municipal sanitation workers are unionized, which means overtime pay and step increases in salary. Full-time city employees often receive complete medical packages, including dental coverage for an entire family. There are not many industries in which extensive health benefits are available without education requirements beyond eighth grade or high school. Most sanitation workers also get some combination of vacation and sick days, often mandated by a union contract with a city.

Perhaps the main draw for those entering the field of sanitation is retirement benefits. A full pension usually kicks in after 20 years for municipal sanitation workers. "I'm working towards that pension. I just hope it's there when I'm done," admits French. The ability to draw a lifelong pension and possibly pursue a dream of restoring antique automobiles is what will drive French to work for the next 15 years.

Although hauling trash is a dangerous profession, those who avoid back strains or bruises might find that they're in better shape after just a few weeks on the job. "I looked a whole lot less like the Michelin Man after a summer of picking up thousands of pounds of trash per day," writes Cardamone.

In addition, sanitation workers get to be outside in the relatively fresh air, depending on the trash route they're assigned to for the day (avoid any route that includes the words fish and market). They also are the only people on the road allowed to hang from the back of a truck by one hand.

In a world filled with trash, some of us must be pickers. And it turns out there are a few unexpected benefits, especially if you're a single guy. "The garbage man is a very dirty job, but someone has to do it. [Otherwise] we would be plagued with mess and disease would spread. The job is not all bad though, surprisingly enough, the girls seem to love the garbage men," says Deuce. While Deuce hasn't gotten any dates from hauling trash yet, he is content with a position that is challenging and surprising on a daily basis.

A profession that has often been the punch line of jokes or seen as a last resort of employment for those who have failed in other areas is presenting a wealth of new opportunities to many Americans. With a chance to earn above a living wage with strong health benefits, sanitation workers are unexpectedly in an enviable position. One key to success is to avoid flirting on the route when the driver has the truck in reverse.


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