What It’s Like to Work in a Landfill During a Pandemic

“The office people who are telling us to go to work without this gear are working from home. They’re sitting at home and telling us, ‘you have to go to work.’”
April 9, 2020, 2:07pm
landfill-workers-Republic-Services
Flickr/Bill McChesney

Kyle Dole is a night laborer at the Carbon Limestone landfill in Lowellville, Ohio, which imports residential and hospital waste from New York and New Jersey. Dole begins his shifts at midnight by walking through ten acres of fresh trash and removing plastic sheets laid down over the ever-expanding landfill at the end of each day to keep it in place. Last week, Dole says he stepped on a large-bore medical needle in the landfill that stabbed through the side of his boot into his foot. It sent him to the hospital.

“It didn’t hurt so much as just the fact that I didn’t know what was on it,” Dole, who is 27, told Motherboard. He received a series of shots for his foot to prevent an infection. “This is a big concern for me. I’m very worried about contracting something and taking it home to my wife, two kids, and extended family.”

In recent days, Lowellville workers have seen hospital gowns, needles, biohazard bags, and ventilator tubes while walking through the landfill, which is owned and operated by Republic Services, the second largest private sanitation company in the country.

They say the coronavirus pandemic, and the fact that trash at their landfill comes from New York City—which has been hit harder than any other city by Covid-19—has made their job more dangerous.

To make matters worse, Republic Services has failed to provide basic protective gear like face masks, face shields, and puncture proof gloves, landfill workers say. (Microsoft founder and billionaire Bill Gates, whose private investment firm owns 34 percent of the Republic Service’s stocks, is its largest shareholder. The company earned $2.8 billion in profits in 2018.)

Working in landfills has always been an extremely dangerous occupation (often referred to as the “golden goose,” landfills traditionally are the most profitable parts of waste management, experts say), but it’s even worse during a pandemic. Laborers walk over glass, needles, dead animals, and other contaminants and operate equipment that isn’t enclosed in the landfill. Much of the refuse in Lowellville is hauled in by subcontracted truck drivers from hospitals and residential buildings in coronavirus hotspots like New York and New Jersey. Gusts of air can blow garbage and fumes onto workers who frequently come into close contact with truck drivers hauling trash in semi-trucks from coronavirus hotspots. Workers are also expected to share equipment and ride in the same pick-up trucks with each other.

“We deal with a lot of medical waste… and 5,000 tons of garbage each day,” John Overly, lead mechanic at the landfill who has worked for Republic Services for more than half of his life, told Motherboard. “With this Covid-19, anything can be a dangerous item. But they have our guys just climbing into machines and coming into contact with garbage. I operate the same machines as other people during the course of the same shift.”

“I don’t feel like they’re taking this seriously at all,” Dole said. “The office people who are telling us to go to work without this gear are working from home. They’re sitting at home and telling you you have to go to work.”

Blue hospital gowns found by workers at the Lowellville landfill. (International Brotherhood of Teamsters)

It’s not just bad for Republic Service landfill workers. Republic Services garbage truck drivers at worksites across the country have told Motherboard in recent days that they’re missing basic protective gear like nitrile gloves, face masks, and hand sanitizer, and that the company has not implemented sufficient social distancing policies.

Republic Services told Motherboard that it is closely following OSHA guidelines and CDC recommendations and providing workers with protective gear including soap, hand sanitizer, tissues, puncture-proof gloves, and face protections.

“In all of our locations we are reminding our employees to follow existing OSHA-directed personal hygiene and safety protocols and providing them with necessary personal protective equipment (PPE),” a Republic Services spokesperson told Motherboard. “We carefully review our inventory of all such supplies, and we are maintaining adequate levels at all locations. To further protect our employees and prevent the virus from making its way into the workplace, we are also conducting routine deep cleaning and disinfection of our facilities and trucks and other equipment.”

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Landfill workers in Lowellville also say their managers at Republic Services have denied them hazard pay. Instead, they have offered workers two additional free meals each week as a reward for taking on the risks of working during the pandemic.

“It’s a joke,” Overly said of management’s response to their request for hazard pay. “The only thing they’ve gotten us since the coronavirus pandemic is some latex gloves, one bottle of hand sanitizer, [and free lunch]. My biggest complaint is the total is the total lack of communication and unwillingness to acknowledge what’s going on when our guys are obviously worried about it.”

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