A light was recently shone on the shadowy world of commercial garbage collection in New York City by Errol Louis, respected New York Daily News columnist and host of NY1’s “Inside City Hall.” When thinking of the inhuman conditions that commercial sanitation workers face and the danger this presents to the public, Louis writes, the person to remember is Mouctar Diallo.
Diallo, as we wrote about previously, was killed while working as the ‘helper’ of a private garbage truck owned by the Bronx-based sanitation company Sanitation Salvage. Though Diallo had been working at the company for some 18 months at the time of his death, the two Sanitation Salvage employees he was with that night lied to police about Diallo’s identity, claiming that he was merely a crazed homeless man who had attempted to jump on their truck.
The truth of what happened that fateful night was not discovered for many months, after the same Sanitation Salvage garbage truck driver who killed Diallo struck and killed an elderly man named Leon Clark as he tried to cross the street, using his cane for support.
Since then, communities have rallied in an attempt to seek justice for Diallo, who was only a 21 years old at the time of his senseless death. The tragedy of Diallo’s story, and the callousness of the people who lied about what really happened that night, “represents everything wrong with an industry that has been riddled with risk, crime and corruption for decades,” according to Louis. No charges were brought in either death.
Municipal vs. Commercial: Two Different Industries
Commercial sanitation, which is responsible for picking up trash from New York City businesses by night, should not be confused with the DSNY trucks which traverse the city on eight-hour shifts collecting residential trash during the day.
DSNY employees receive overtime pay, health care, a pension, nearly a month of paid vacation and unlimited sick days; private sanitation employees, on the other hand, are generally paid a flat fee per shift, which routinely extend beyond the 11-hour federally-mandated limit for driving jobs, and receive no overtime pay, health benefits or retirement plans, according to an investigative piece by ProPublica.
The contrast in the safety records of municipal versus commercial waste disposal is equally stark. Although waste and recycling work is the fifth-most dangerous job in America, these fatalities are not evenly distributed: in 2016, for example, 82 percent of waste-worker deaths occurred in the private sector.
What accounts for this disturbing difference? One cause is the subpar equipment private sanitation workers are given. According to ProPublica, when garbage trucks from New York City’s 50 biggest private sanitation trucks were pulled off the road and inspected, 53 percent were declared unsafe to drive, more than double the 21 percent national average.
And what the private garbage industry lacks in safety standards, it does not make up for in efficiency. The current system leaves the businesses of the five boroughs to hire their own disposal company from the nearly 250 which operate in the city. The result is that, on any given block, you could have 3 different companies servicing 5 different businesses, leading to congestion and staggering inefficiency. The de Blasio administration has proposed that this be resolved by dividing the city into zones to consolidate truck routes and cut down on unnecessary traffic, but private sanitation companies have staunchly resisted these attempts at reforms, and so things go unchanged.
In spite of this bleak picture, something strange has happened in the way the private sanitation industry is regulated. From 2015 to 2017, the number of violations issued to private garbage companies by the Business Integrity Commission actually dropped from 1,166 to 640, according to another in-depth investigative piece by ProPublica. Meanwhile, just in 2017, private sanitation trucks in New York City were responsible for 7 deaths, and have claimed a total of 33 lives in NYC since 2010.
Now, in the aftermath of Diallo’s tragic death and the shameful lies which were told to try and hide it, New Yorkers are beginning to wake up to the substandard, neglectful and dangerous manner in which private sanitation companies operate. Now there needs to be change before more lives are claimed.