Traffic along 14th Street does not let up by midnight.
A young man clung to the rear of an Elite Waste Hauler LLC truck, occasionally waving his arms in sync with whatever was pulsing through his earbuds. His reflective vest gleamed when he passed under the street lamps, illuminating his black hoodie, dark athletic pants and sneakers.
The truck stopped. Another sanitation worker ran across the busy street, hoisted up sheets of cardboard and lobbed it ahead of the oncoming traffic back to the young man, who tossed it into the truck’s backside beside black bags of trash.
New York City’s commercial waste industry has come under scrutiny, with some contending that lax oversight has contributed to a recycling rate that may be as low as 24 percent and has forced vulnerable populations to work long shifts without proper pay, boots or other standard equipment.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has undertaken a feasibility study of a zoning system in which the boroughs would be carved into sectors, and companies would compete for a license to collect waste in each one. This could prevent dozens of hauling companies from all serving businesses along the same commercial strip and bypassing waste facilities to reach the one they use. Beyond curbing pollution from trucks, long-term licenses may spur companies to invest in newer, greener technology and encourage recycling. Transform Don’t Trash, an alliance of organized labor and environmental justice advocates, is also urging the city to include labor provisions in the bidding process.
The regulatory scheme may help the administration reach its goals of sending no waste to landfills by 2030 and dramatically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, according to Dan Brownell, chairman of the Business Integrity Commission, which licenses commercial hauling companies. But Brownell cautioned against viewing zoning as a panacea for an array of competing policy concerns. For instance, adding recycling streams would require additional trucks, which could counteract the pollution reduced by streamlining routes; or higher wages and more advanced technology could push prices to levels that are prohibitively expensive for small businesses.
“Too often, most or all of the goals I just recited are presented as if they are fairly easy to obtain through a commercial zone collection plan,” Brownell said at an April City Council hearing. “The reality is that many of these items actually compete with each other, one lessening the ability to achieve another. … It is important that we review this closely.”
Labor protections scarce
Teamsters Local 813, which represents commercial sanitation workers and is part of Transform Don’t Trash, would like to see labor peace agreements tied to licenses. Such accords typically prevent workers from striking or boycotting and give unions more leverage in attempting to organize. But Local 813’s support has raised questions about why it takes a push from organized labor to get the government to supervise the sector. Tom Toscano, the head of the National Waste & Recycling Association's New York City chapter, said the government currently has tools to halt worker mistreatment and the industry can independently help the city meet its policy goals without buttressing a union.
“(Local 813) is looking to use this to try to get their stranglehold on the industry back,” Toscano said. “Why don’t they enforce the laws that we have? I am completely in favor of that. If the City Council wants to call us in there and ask how they can do it, or the BIC for that matter, I would be more than happy to have those discussions.”
One former city sanitation worker, however, described his experience working without a union as unbearable. Steven Torres took a position in January with Viking Carting Company amid Local 813’s attempts to organize its workers. Torres said nobody trained him or paid for boots, gloves, a reflective vest or other gear, which Local 813 said is mandated by the federal government. An uncle of his stepped in and offered informal guidance. Torres said he was preparing to have a truck pull in a large, rectangular garbage container when its hook came out of place. One of the container’s wheels rolled over his left hand and broke his ring finger, Torres said. He said his finger was dressed in a splint, but then it took two weeks to get workers’ compensation and insurance in order to undergo surgery.
“They didn’t even call me to know if I was OK,” said Torres, who estimated his medical bills amounted to about $15,000. “I really don’t know if they paid for that. But I know something. I know when I asked for antibiotics, they couldn’t cover it.”
When he returned to work two months later, Torres said he struggled to get the same number of hours he previously had. He noticed colleagues who did not meet with the Local 813 reps, as he had, were paid $140 a night in cash, as opposed to the $120 check he received. Employees heard a Viking executive had shown up at a Dunkin’ Donuts where a worker had planned – but ultimately skipped – a meeting with two Local 813 reps, according to James Curbeam, an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The executive did not speak to the union organizers, but word got around that he watched them “look stupid,” Curbeam said.
A lawyer for Viking declined to comment.
A union election planned for June 17 was called off when Local 813 filed multiple allegations with the National Labor Relations Board alleging Viking engaged in domination and coercive actions and made coercive statements.
Torres ultimately decided to move to Florida. “They’re telling the workers that (Local 813) is no good, they’re going to give us a better union when all this is done,” Torres said. “But we all know that that’s not true.”
Local 813 said Viking executives were promoting two “rogue” unions – IUJAT’s United Services Workers Union Local 890 and League of International Federated Employees’ Local 339 – in an effort to quell organizing. Neither Local 890 nor Local 339 returned calls for comment. Both filed federal forms required of unions with less than $250,000 in annual receipts and did not report collecting dues or paying staff, which Local 813 said raises questions about their viability.
The environment at Viking is emblematic of the industry, Local 813 said. Workers said it was standard practice for companies to pay by the night, but design routes with so many stops that a shift could span 14 hours or more. They contend this prevents them from earning overtime or other benefits associated with being considered a full-time employee. One driver said he had not been able to take a paid vacation in two years.
With safety precautions and pay lagging, Local 813 said those who go into the private sanitation industry often have few options. Curbeam said one Viking worker lived in a shelter; another worker named a company he avoided because it was known to hire undocumented workers and pay poorly; and many said those coming out of prison manned trucks in an industry long ranking among the most dangerous.
When it comes to labor violations, BIC’s Brownell and Sanitation Commissioner Kathryn Garcia both said at the April City Council hearing that their agencies only have limited authority. They noted enforcement tended to fall on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and state Department of Labor. In the past year, OSHA has launched 27 investigations of refuse collection and material recovery facilities in the state, nine of which resulted in a collective 26 violations and $59,720 in penalties.
The governor, meanwhile, convened a Task Force to Combat Worker Exploitation and Abuse charged with rooting out illegal practices in the waste disposal sector and other industries. The governor’s office said commercial haulers were targeted because the Department of Labor had received complaints about employees being misclassified, often as contractors. Since 2011, the state has identified nearly 5,477 misclassified workers in the larger trucking industry and uncovered nearly $2.1 million in related unpaid unemployment insurance. Still, Local 813 President Sean Campbell said it’s difficult for workers to know where they can file a complaint and expect a response.
“I would like an answer to that question as well,” Campbell said. He said he hoped the city’s zoning plan could remedy the situation. “The city would be the one to hand out the zones, so with that being said, you would have safety standards, you would also have a wage standard, and you will have somebody, now, paying attention to what’s happening.”
The benefits of competition
Toscano disputed Local 813’s allegations, saying his association regularly communicates with hauling companies that collectively handle at least 60 percent of the city’s commercial waste, and he’s never heard of any exploitative employment practices. He said the government has tools to end illegal practices, and he would be happy to assist it in doing so.
As for underpayment, Toscano said rates are so competitive he had to raise entry-level pay at one of his businesses, Mr. T Carting, twice over the past two years to attract more personnel. Toscano said his average employee makes more than $70,000 annually, has full health benefits and a pension plan under Local 339 representation. The mean entry-level salary for refuse and recyclable collectors in New York City is $41,430, according to state Department of Labor figures.
Under a zoning system, Toscano said haulers would likely be unable to accommodate scheduling, say, for bars that want garbage picked up after last call rather than when neighboring restaurants’ trash is picked up at 10 p.m.
The Transform Don’t Trash alliance contends, however, that businesses are not being well served by the current market setup. The group put out a report claiming 61 percent of businesses surveyed do not have a written contract with their hauler, and many small companies were unable to negotiate discounts for recycling like their larger counterparts.
Still, Toscano predicted – and BIC’s Brownell agreed – that small firms would likely be shut out of the bidding process. And Toscano said the lack of competition would lead to customers shouldering the burden of price spikes.
“You have a franchise system in the city of New York right now, and that’s the Department of Sanitation,” Toscano said, noting that, based on the department’s budget, he believed it spent twice as much per ton handling waste as private companies. “And then you have the organized labor piece of this. And if you ask the obvious question – why are they pushing it? – it’s to put things back, in a way, to the way they were 20 years ago. You won’t have organized crime running it. But you’ll have a situation.”
The mob connection
For years, organized crime controlled the commercial sanitation industry and inflated prices, sometimes with cooperation from Local 813 leadership. Nevertheless, workers saw the union as an ally. Thirty years ago, at age 15, Local 813 organizer Allan Henry started at a now-defunct hauling company in the Bronx. After a few months, his boss began withholding his paychecks. Local 813 told him he was being underpaid. Henry told a cousin he worked with, and the union helped the two sort out the issue in a meeting with their bosses. Henry said he and his cousin then followed instructions and showed up for that night’s shift.
While backing the truck out of a garage, he heard the pop of a gunshot, followed by his cousin yelling that he’d been shot. Henry believes the gunmen arrested a few blocks away had been paid by his bosses. Once his cousin healed, both moved on to different hauling companies. Henry says that as a teen, $16.10 an hour plus a pension for working as a helper was attractive; he never imagined a time when helpers could make as little as $8.75 an hour, as some do now.
Eventually, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani established what became known as the BIC to license and vet haulers without ties to organized crime. The city set maximum rates in a bid to prevent collusion among companies from driving up costs. Today, both Toscano and the Teamsters said this strategy led to the growth of nonunion companies and forced the industry to lower its costs and compensation to compete. Local 813 saw its membership drop from the majority of the sector to about 2,200, National Labor Relations Board documents show.
A call to refine recycling
Meanwhile, little was done to green the industry. The de Blasio administration estimates the city’s commercial sector generates 3 million tons of waste per year, and less than one-third of it is recycled. But the Transform Don’t Trash alliance puts this figure much higher, around 5.5 million tons per year, based on an unpublished 2012 study the city commissioned that was acquired through a Freedom of Information Law request.
While watching haulers at work this fall, Teamsters pointed out drivers and helpers heaving bags of trash and recycling into the same truck. Some workers interviewed reported rarely running separate routes to gather cardboard and paper. At Brooklyn Transfer LLC, which is licensed to handle traditional trash, and Hi-Tech Resource Recovery Inc., which is licensed to take in waste and commingled paper and containers, haulers poured waste onto the floors of expansive garages, where scraps of paper were mixed in. Cardboard could be seen in a bucket of refuse that was scooped up and loaded into a tractor-trailer, likely bound for a landfill.
Roughly 66 percent of cardboard and paper collected from businesses are put in landfills or incinerated annually, according to the Transform Don’t Trash alliance. Just 6 percent of the city’s commercial waste stays in the state, with most of it traveling an average 272 miles to landfills as far as South Carolina.
Toscano, whose company also runs Hi-Tech, pinned the problem on customers who don’t separate out their recycling. He said his staff manually picks out recyclables. And he added that Hi-Tech may buy a machine to funnel out additional recycling from waste. “We think we can get the number up to around 10 percent out of what we’ll take out of that stream (of garbage), but about 30 percent of our tonnage is already recycled through picking it up separately, through cardboard and the food waste,” he said.
The city’s current recycling rules are applied differently to various businesses: Office buildings must pull out paper products, while restaurants must separate out cans and bottles, according to Justin Wood, an environmental justice community organizer at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a member of the Transform Don’t Trash alliance. The rules grant the sanitation commissioner the right to inspect whether waste is properly sorted at the curb as well as at transfer stations, but not at recycling facilities, Wood said. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which oversees recycling plants, monitors them to make sure they are complying with rules that keep them from having more than 15 percent of material deemed residue, or non-recycled waste, each year. The department said it takes enforcement action when appropriate. But it does not conduct inspections to ensure recyclable material is not landfilled.
New rules proposed by the city would establish more uniform recycling standards for all businesses and more clearly articulate that sorted material must be kept separate from the moment it’s placed at the curb for pickup. Wood described the rules as a positive step, but said more monitoring and enforcement would be needed to ensure they’re followed. A zoning system could be pivotal for this, he argued.
The administration is advancing a 2006-era plan to open marine transfer stations and use barges to transport trash. But communities in North Brooklyn, Southeast Queens and the South Bronx, where land transfer stations are clustered, say it’s time to curb the truck traffic and pollution associated with the private industry, too, according to City Council Sanitation and Solid Waste Committee Chairman Antonio Reynoso.
“If anybody is going to make it a priority, it’s going to be this administration,” Reynoso said. “We hope (the mayor) changes the conversation when it comes to trash and inequities.”