“I’ve got mine, you get yours.”
An old New Yorker Magazine cartoon depicted a huge sanitation worker grinning maniacally as he was about to toss an empty garbage can to the curb in front of an apartment building, shattering the pre-dawn silence. The caption read, “The sort of thing that brings joy to the ashman’s black heart.”
I’ve often thought of that cartoon as I lay in bed early in the morning after being awakened by the sanitation workers of the Yonkers Public Works Department, who come by three days a week at about 6:30 a.m. to collect garbage and recycling. I recently moved to a new address, and found that the collection started an hour earlier than it had at my old address, just blocks away.
I called the department to inquire as to why these pickups were scheduled so early in the morning. A receptionist gave me the old, “We’ve always done it that way” line, but transferred me to a supervisor. He told me that the collections had to be done at that hour to avoid both the rush hour and school buses transporting children. The pickups couldn’t be done later, he said, because that would take them into the afternoon rush hour. I figured this was an argument I wasn’t going to win, and I just had to grin and bear it. It’s bad enough in the winter, but in the summer, with the windows open, the noise is an unwanted wake-up call, as much as two hours before I actually have to get up.
Like that ogre-ish fellow in the New Yorker Magazine cartoon, the local sanitation workers seem to delight in either tossing the cans to the curb or, on many occasions, leaving them in the middle of the street, literally. I’ve seen them sitting like traffic berms, which cars must drive around, although sometimes the cans or lids are just run over, breaking them and rendering them useless. Even so, with holiday schedules and snow emergencies, some weeks we’re lucky to get pickups and recycling at all.
Most residential garbage collection in Yonkers takes place on Tuesdays and Fridays. Tuesdays seem somewhat illogical, perhaps, considering that people are home on the weekends and therefore generating more garbage. Fridays would seem to make more sense: an end-of-week pickup, then none on the weekend. Recycling is done on Wednesdays, alternating paper and cardboard one week with “co-mingles,” cans and glass and plastic bottles, the next.
In weeks with a holiday, collection is pushed back a day, which results in many weeks when there is only one pickup. When there is a Monday holiday, the Tuesday pickup is done on Wednesday, the Wednesday recycling pickup on Thursday and the Friday pickup is canceled. The problem is that sanitation workers in Yonkers get an inordinate number of paid holidays. For instance, between Election Day and President’s Day, they have eight holidays, including Lincoln’s Birthday, which was abolished for most people years ago in favor of President’s Day. Eight holidays in 16 weeks – one every other week. All told, 12 vacation days a year – on average, one a month. If collection days were Mondays and Thursdays, that would still allow for two pickups per week, even with holidays. But that would mean no more four-day work weeks for the sanitation workers.
This year, in addition to the Martin Luther King Day holiday on Jan. 20, a foot of snow was dumped on Yonkers the following day. The city posted a notice on its website advising that garbage collection would be delayed because of the holiday and the snow. The Tuesday collection was done on Thursday and both the Wednesday recycling and Friday garbage collections were canceled. The former meant that no co-mingles would be collected from the previous pickup, on Jan. 8, until the next scheduled pickup, on Feb. 5. Residents either had to store them in their homes, apartments or garages or take them to the recycling center on Saw Mill River Road. With the inordinate amount of snowfall this year, the center has also closed early on some days or completely on others. The workers were presumably put to work on snow-related duties.
Then, after the snowfall on Wednesday, Feb. 5, the city again canceled recycling for that week – also the one in which co-mingles were scheduled to be collected. And again, the recycling center was temporarily closed. This meant that no co-mingles were collected from Jan. 8 until the next scheduled pickup, scheduled for Feb. 20. The snowstorm threw the schedule into chaos and it should have been obvious that an emergency pickup schedule could have been instituted. Some people, such as the elderly or those without cars, may not have the means to transport their recyclables to the center, if it waA even open. Additional snow also resulted in cancellation of the paper recycling pickups for more than a month.
With the holidays for Lincoln’s Birthday on Feb. 12 (which, again, no one else gets) and President’s Day on Feb. 17, plus sanitation workers either diverted to snow removal duties or unable to pick up garbage or recycling, there was no pickup between Feb. 11 and 19. Eight days of garbage and recycling piled up in garages, hallways and back yards.
With all those paid holidays, I find that even two large garbage cans and a smaller one are sometimes not enough to hold everything generated by a family of four. How many garbage cans do I need? We’ve had to put out boxes full of garbage, which have to be tightly secured to prevent urban wildlife from ripping them open looking for food. At Christmastime, the pileup of extra boxes and wrapping makes a single-family home’s garbage look like that of an apartment building.
On top of that, the city posts an online residential guide that details all the pickup and recycling days, holidays and Christmas tree and leaf removal days. Many homeowners are apparently unaware of that or don’t bother to check it; they put garbage at the curb whether it’s going to be picked up or not, and just leave it there until it is. In weeks when there is no Friday pickup, they’ll put it out on Thursday night and it won’t get picked up till Tuesday morning, four-and-a-half days later. Can’t blame the sanitation men for that. I am amazed that people do not complain about either the health hazards or the effect on property values of huge loads of trash in front of their homes. I would rather pay the overtime and have the garbage picked up than to look at it.
Now, I understand that sanitation workers do a difficult, unpleasant job, one I probably could not do, nor would I want to, and they deserve to be paid for that. But in this harsh economic climate, it’s not unreasonable to ask them to sacrifice a little. They do have jobs, after all, are paid fairly well, get good benefits and have all those days off. I’ve worked in industries, such as health care, where individuals get days off, but it’s essential that the business keeps running and the public is served, so other people are scheduled to work. The removal of garbage is an essential service that should not be subject to work schedules and union demands.
In 2010, the city’s finances necessitated layoffs and the unions resisted a 5-percent pay cut, telling the administration to raise property taxes 30 percent instead. When Mayor Philip Amicone suggested that some givebacks might be in order, an unofficial work slowdown suddenly resulted in pileups of uncollected garbage all over the city. Local media documented this, and politicians complained. On my former block, no garbage was collected for 12 days. In that sweltering July, we were lucky to be spared an infestation of rats feasting on piles of trash. If a simple suggestion by the mayor resulted in a work slowdown of that magnitude, imagine what the voice of a single homeowner might bring about for that person’s home or block. It is not as though a giveback here or there to improve productivity and serve the taxpayers is going to result in a massive loss of all the benefits the union has worked for. The workers seem to have lost sight of the fact that we are all in this together, instead choosing an “I’ve got mine, you get yours” attitude. And the city, undoubtedly fearing a strike, has capitulated, at the taxpayers’ expense.
A. Yonkersite is an anonymous author in fear of suffering retribution into the future as he / she had in the past. This person is known to the editor.