What It’s Actually Like to Work as a Garbage Man
Trash collectors have the fifth most dangerous job in America—but they also enjoy some surprising perks.
Photo by PeopleImages / Getty Images
Ryan Evans knows that his job will break his body.
For the last year and a half, his official title has been “solid waste worker” for the city of Berkeley, California, but he doesn’t much care for that polite moniker. “I’m really a garbage man,” he says. He’s 34 years old now, and figures he has another 26 years to go before retiring. But he also realizes that will largely depend on how his body holds up.
Garbage collection is the fifth most dangerous job in America, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with 34 fatal injuries per 100,000 workers; in 2016, a Berkeley sanitation worker died after being pinned between his truck and a utility pole.
It’s also a growing field. The 136,000 people—mostly men between the ages of 18 and 40—currently employed across the country as refuse and recyclable collectors is expected to increase 13 percent by 2026 since a rising population translates into even more trash. And while the median pay of just $36,000 a year isn’t great, by far the biggest drawback of a job that involves moving huge, heavy rolling carts into massive trucks geared to smash is its deadly danger.
Hard work and unexpected perks
The aches and pains that come from the repetitive stress of the job are all part of the grind. “You’re dumping carts by hand, going down these long, steep driveways,” he says. “When you get home at the end of the day, your shoulders hurt, your knees and feet hurt, your hands swell up. It takes a toll. The older guys have trouble walking, have torn rotator cuffs, need knee surgeries, stuff like that.”
The trade-off for Evans’ body is the pay—he says he makes $60,000 a year with an hourly rate of $30, time-and-a-half on holidays, two weeks of paid vacation, and full health benefits for his family. When Evans reaches 52 years old, he’ll be eligible for a state pension Also, he gets to spend his days outside, as opposed to in a stuffy office all day long.
“It’s not boring,” he says. “And you find stuff all the time.”
People throw out weird shit. He tells me about the time he found an old World War II helmet. The other day, he found a violin. Sometimes, he can find a home for the best items —either his own, or whoever wants to pay the most money for it—but that practice has slowed down. “My wife put a curb on me being bringing stuff home,” he says.
The other, big downside with the gig is that it’s hauling away stuff that people don’t want, much of which smells terribly. Sometimes the truck’s lift catches, and diapers or kitty litter spill out into the street, and he has to gather it up by hand. More dangerously are items like bleach or pesticides, or the glass bottles being smashed in the hopper.
“If you’re not paying attention, and the glass breaks, shards can hit you in the neck or face,” he says. “But that smell? You get used to it.”
Even though Evans and his wife, a project manager at a hospital, are a dual income household, they can’t afford to live in Berkeley. So he makes a hour-long-or-so commute to and from nearby Concord.
There’s also the worry that this job may not be around in a decade’s time, what with automation coming. Evans mentions new trucks in the Bay that necessitate only one worker aboard, where two used to be the norm. “One day they’ll have a driverless garbage truck, you know what I mean?” he says.
Declining wages take a toll
Across the country in New York City, the dangers and worries are the same, but everything is amplified.
Rather than a single agency collecting the trash, there’s a blend of city and private, with the latter handling the business-heavy night shift. As Allan Henry, an organizer for the Teamsters Local 813, tells it, working for these private waste companies was good until the 90s, when Mayor Giuliani vowed to remove mob interests from sanitation work. “He wanted to get the mob out,” Henry says, “and he did.”
But as part of his spirited regulatory process, the Teamsters were no longer allowed to have all of their membership on a single contract, forcing them instead to negotiate a new deal with each collection company. And that, in turn, led to lower worker pay and benefits.
“Starting pay at [private collection company] Action Carting used to be $25.25 an hour,” Henry says. “Now, it’s $11.00 an hour. Workers lost sick days, personal days, holidays, vacation time. And they used to work reasonable hours, but now it’s six days a week, and anywhere from 14 to 16 hours. It’s a total disaster and workers have no recourse.”
“People don’t retire. This industry retires them.”
The 22-year career of Joe Ostro is a good example of how the private waste management industry has changed over the years. He works for Action Carting, a private waste management company in New York City that uses 133 garbage trucks to collect from 16,700 businesses, ProPublica reported. Back when he started, Ostro says, getting a job like that felt like you hit the jackpot.
“You’d put in your 20 years and retire,” Ostro says. “And you got good pay and benefits. But that’s not what it used to be.”
When Ostro started in 1996, he was making “$17 and change” an hour, and various raises over the years has pushed that to $30 an hour now. But, Ostro says, no one starting this job in 2018 should expect to ever get to that wage, no matter how long they stick with it. Shifts are only getting longer—according to Henry, two decades ago, the typical shift was 8-12 hours, but today it’s 10-18 hours—and benefits are still being winnowed away.
“I’m working next to people making $15, $16, $17 an hour, doing the same hard labor,” Ostro says. “For $16 an hour, you should really consider finding another line of work.”
Ostro is 46 years old now. He’s considered shifting into a city job, but he’s put too many years here, and it doesn’t make financial sense for him to start over. He thinks he can squeeze another three years out of his body before moving onto the whatever the next thing is. He hopes, at least.
“When you’re doing private sanitation [in New York], you’re not going to make it to the end of your career,” Henry, the Teamster organizer, says. “People don’t retire. This industry retires them.”