Workers strike for back pay in front of Sanitation Salvage on Manida Street in January.

Uprooting a dangerous industry: Garbage reform explained

The new framework is a start, union representatives and drivers like Mondesi say, but it could be even stronger. Some business owners, meanwhile, say the reform will make it harder to stay afloat.  

Workers strike for back pay in front of Sanitation Salvage on Manida Street in January.

Miguel Mondesi was a garbage worker in New York City for 22 years. He’s only 46, but everything hurts — his knees, his ankles, his hips.  

The father of three would start his shifts at a Bronx garbage company at 3 a.m. and work for the next 10 to 15 hours. To make it home in time to see his children, Mondesi said he was always looking for ways to cut corners.

“I’m driving like an animal, you know? I’m driving fast,” he said.

The city’s private sanitation industry is broken, said Mondesi, who just recently left his job as a driver and began work as a union organizers with the Teamsters union. Businesses have to pay private carters to pick up their trash, while the city’s sanitation department picks up mainly for residential buildings. Private carters, seeking to serve as many customers as possible, run routes that zig zag across the city, forcing drivers to work long hours and to ignore stop signs and speed limits, putting themselves and citizens at risk, critics say.

The private garbage hauling industry has gone largely unregulated. But the Department of Sanitation is working on a dramatic reform that would reconfigure the way trash is picked up in the city. 

The new framework is a start, union representatives and drivers like Mondesi say, but it could be even stronger. Some business owners, meanwhile, say the reform will make it harder to stay afloat.  

The Reform 
The proposed system would designate 20 zones around the city where only five or fewer private haulers are allowed to pick up trash. Each hauler would have to submit a formal request to the city to compete for zones, detailing their compliance with labor laws, their environmental impact and the state of their trucks and equipment. 

“Now people with more violations, that don’t have new trucks, that overwork their workers, are going to have a harder time gaining contracts with the city,” said Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who chairs the sanitation committee and said he will introduce the reform proposal in City Hall later this year. 

The proposal comes a year and a half after a ProPublica investigation exposed the poor working conditions of garbage drivers in the city. The report focused on Sanitation Salvage, a now-shuttered private trash hauler that was based in Hunts Point, and tells a dark tale of the sanitation industry: two people crushed to death under the weight of garbage trucks, over $780,000 of unpaid workers compensation and thousands of off-the-books drivers.

Sanitation Salvage was forced to close as a result of those stories, which revealed the intense pressure on drivers whose routes extended to 16 hours of hard physical labor. Workers say they routinely went unpaid for their overtime hours. They picketed in front of the closed storefront on Manida Street in January to demand back pay from the owners.

Justin Wood, an attorney for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said the problem isn’t just greedy bosses; it’s a lack of regulation. 

Right now there is no limit on what kind of routes trash haulers can operate or how many carters can exist in one neighborhood, Wood said. More than 50 carters might service a single community district, according to a city sanitation report.  

“Under the current system, the companies are locked in this ruthless competition for any (business) they can get,” Wood said. “They’re really incentivized to take customers even if they run off an existing route. This amounts to a lot of pressure on the drivers.” 

The new system would allow garbage drivers to pick up trash only in their designated zone, which would make routes more efficient, Mondesi said. 

 “If the city keeps us in one area, I could practice safety on every single stop.”  

Exclusive Zones: A More Dramatic Change
Alex Moore, spokesperson for the Teamsters Local Union 813, said the city could go one step further. He and a group of advocates are calling for an exclusive waste zone system, which means only one garbage hauler could operate in each zone. 

A sanitation department impact study found that the mileage drivers would have to travel under an exclusive system was 52 percent lower than under a non-exclusive system. 

Despite the findings, the agency warned against this kind of system, arguing that a monopoly over each zone would lead to a price increase for customers. But Moore said companies could save on fuel and vehicle maintenance from the reduced mileage, which would allow them to set lower prices.

Action Carting, one of the largest carters in the city, is in favor of an exclusive zoning system. CEO Ron Bergamini said that if there is competition in the zones, companies will still skirt regulation to gain customers.  

“I have big plans of what we could do with one zone,” Bergamini said. “But with multiple carters in a zone, I doubt anyone will notice a difference.” 

 Not everyone is on board 
An exclusive system would mean only 20 garbage haulers operating in the entire city.  This could be catastrophic for customers, said Michael Brady, the executive director of the Third Avenue Business Improvement District in Mott Haven. 

Small restaurants already pay at least $160 a week to have their garbage picked up, Brady said. And usually, businesses forge relationships with their haulers that often lead to discounted prices.

Brady warned an exclusive waste zone system would bring the city back to the ‘40s and ‘50s, when mobsters ran the industry. 

“It’s going to open the door for organized crime and bribery and all this other stuff that we already learned from,” Brady said. “I don’t know why the city of New York thinks that we can outsmart organized crime. We can’t.” 

Even a non-exclusive reform would hurt small businesses and do little to address the real issues with the garbage industry, he added. 

“You’re gonna have an enforcement agent that might visit me once a year,” he said. “O.K. So I’ll make sure that I’m really good around my yearly inspection.”

This story was updated on March 27. 

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