On Harry Nespoli’s first morning on the job as a refuse collector for the New York City Department of Sanitation, he received an unwelcome surprise. After lifting a 55-gallon drum and heaving its contents into the back of his truck, a wet mass came spewing back out of the truck’s motorized hopper, soaking him head to toe in dead pigeons, blood and water. When Nespoli came home later that day he told his wife, “I’m not going to last.”
It was 1970 when Nespoli became a sanitation worker. He had been a pretty good college football player in Kansas and had considered bouncing around a semi-professional league for a couple of years to try his luck, but times were tough. A recession was on, and the 25-year-old Nespoli had recently married, moved back to New York, and was expecting a baby. The job as a “san man” would give him a steady paycheck, health coverage for his family, and a guaranteed retirement pension among other benefits. He was a tough guy, he reasoned. He could take it, and he did.
Nespoli worked ten years as a refuse collector before he was appointed vice president, and eventually president, of The International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 831: the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Association, where he is today.
Nespoli is stocky, tan, and still strong at age 62. It’s easy to imagine him overcoming the most undesirable of tasks. “Our job’s not a glamorous job,” Nespoli says. “It’s a hardworking job. We’re not out waiting for a call. We have a responsibility that we go out with an empty truck in the morning, and come back with a full one.”
Though he allies himself with the workers and visits a garage in every borough each week, most days he wears a suit and tie and shuffles between his two offices at the union’s Wall Street headquarters—one private office featuring a very large American flag on a pole, a large wooden desk and a leather couch; the other, an office with linoleum tile floors, cinder block walls, and a glass window separating him from the rest of his colleagues. As president of the union, he says, his primary responsibility is taking care of union members and their families—keeping them safe.
Nespoli has observed over the past several years that sanitation employees tend to work the minimum 20 years necessary to retire and collect their pensions—often going on to other, less hazardous jobs. Others stay on past retirement age. Nespoli’s Rat Pack-era Brooklyn accent becomes more pronounced as he talks about his “guys”: “I ask some of my members, I say, ‘How old are you?’ And he says, ‘I’m 49.’ I say, ‘you’re 49 years of age, you’re ready for retirement. You can retire now—why are you going?’ And they say that their bodies are hurting.”
Worker safety is not a top priority of the New York Department of Sanitation because there is intense pressure to get the job done quickly. In 1980, the Sanitation Department instituted a productivity program with the goal of saving taxpayers and the city more money. The most notable change was reducing the number of men per truck from three to two. This saved the city billions of dollars a year, and gave sanitation workers a fairer wage.
But Nespoli is concerned that the increased workload is catching up to his members. “The productivity is putting more money in their pocket,” he says, “which is turning around and feeding their families better; sending their children to school; paying their bills; and possibly having that ultimate American Dream of owning their own house. But, it does tear their bodies apart. And now, they’re running out the door.”
To figure out just how many injuries are going on out in the field that might possibly preventable, Nespoli decided a new health study should be conducted. The Department of Sanitation was characteristically skeptical of his efforts and refused to contribute any money to any such study. So he convinced the union to pay the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine $20,000 to conduct an anonymous mail-in survey of 3,000 sanitation workers and 2,000 retirees regarding their injuries on the job.
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E., a sanitation worker in Staten Island who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions at work, received the Mt. Sinai survey in the mail and intends to send it back in. He’s been on the job for nine years. Every day E. shows up for six a.m. roll call at the garage, gets his route and partner assignment, and then hits the streets. The only safety precautions his managers give him at the garage are the traffic warning dispatches they read at roll call. It would be nice, E. says, if the higher-ups could say something like, “Watch yourselves out there,” or, “Be careful, it’s wet out there,” or, “Take it easy, it’s slow.” But E. says the message he gets from management is, “If you don’t clean you’re route, you’re in trouble.”
The worst part of E.’s job is being so exposed to the elements. “All the rain, snow, and heat just takes a toll on your body,” he says. New York City Sanitation workers get about $900 at the beginning of the year to spend on uniforms, which E. says isn’t nearly enough to cover a year’s worth of uniforms and gear. Workers are responsible for buying everything—from the green suits they wear in the summer, to rain jackets (as long as they’re yellow), to their own gloves, boots, and hats in the winter. The Department of Sanitation requires refuse collectors to dress in uniform at all times. Some routes in Staten Island are as long as 23 miles, according to Nespoli. After 23 miles of bending and heaving and maneuvering around residential fences, workers are bound to rip, stain, and wear out their clothes quickly.
As much as E. complains about the elements, being outdoors is also the best part of his job. He doesn’t want to sit behind a desk and likes being outside during the daytime. E. has no desire to advance to management-level work that would force him to sit in a cubicle all day. He also has a strong distaste for what he sees as the cold attitude and lack of respect from his supervisors. “There’s the management and then there’s us,” E. said. “We are just a number to the city. We’re so expendable that if something really drastic happens they’ll just replace us with somebody else.”
When E. has to lift a pail of garbage that’s over 60 pounds, which is the maximum amount he’s allowed to lift alone, he rarely complains or reports the residential waste violation to his supervisor. He tries not to ask his partner for help when a load looks heavy. After all, he and his partner switch off lifting and driving every half hour. Why should he make his partner do more lifting than he has to? Complaining to his supervisor would be fruitless. “We have to do what management tells us to do,” E. said.
There’s a safety unit within the department tasked with educating management and workers on safety practices. “They should spend more time,” Nespoli says. “But time is money. You take that man off a track to put him in a classroom or to brief him on safety, that means there’s some stuff not being picked up. The city does not work like that. They have to get their day’s pay, and they have to do the work.” Even if doing the work means risking a worker’s life.
Sanitation workers who ride on the back of the truck in between stops drive Harry Nespoli crazy. “Riding the step” is not illegal, but it’s very dangerous. “I’m tired of going to the hospitals and seeing young kids with cracked heads; with broken arms; with crushed legs,” from falling off the back step, Nespoli says. He has tried for years to get the department to burn that step off the trucks. “The answer from management [against] cutting down the steps was, ‘Will that slow the men down from finishing the route?’ And I just turned around and said, ‘I’m not even looking at that. I’m looking at the man in the hospital.”
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Nespoli gets out of his chair at his plush union office to demonstrate the kind of movement he was doing the day he injured his shoulder. He was a young kid, probably late 20s, when he went to pick up a garbage pail in a Brooklyn back yard. He thought he’d reach over the fence with one arm to lift the bag out of its pail, instead of going the extra couple of steps to open up the gate and pick up the pail with two hands. He immediately felt a twinge of pain and dropped the load. Sitting back in his leather chair, he reaches up to massage his right shoulder to indicate that it still hurts him to this day.
No one can say Harry Nespoli is unsympathetic to the plight of his hardworking ilk, but he knows what they sign up for. The average New York City sanitation worker walks 15 miles and lifts 26 tons in one week, according to a report by the Uniformed Sanitationmen’s Union. He or she works through an average 121 days of rain and/or snow per year. When people say, “It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it,” they’re talking about refuse collection. It’s a job that must get done or the city won’t function.
Workers like E. are drawn to it because it’s one of the only municipal jobs with a guaranteed pension after 20 years.
One of the tenets of the New York State Public Employees Fair Employment Act, or Taylor law, is that city employees cannot go on strike. They must rely on unions to negotiate what’s in their best interest. Nespoli is hoping that the Mt. Sinai survey—which he expects to be finished by Christmas 2007—will be a bargaining chip come contract-negotiating time. “I’d be a fool—I wouldn’t be a good union man—if I don’t use [the survey data] at the contract stating that, ‘Look, look at all these injuries we have. This is a very hazardous job. We’re worth more money than what we’re getting paid.’” If the department doesn’t want to raise salaries, Nespoli says, it “should turn around and say, ‘Oh, okay. Well how could we work together to try to prevent those injuries?’ I’ll sit down in a heartbeat.”
As president of the union, Nespoli must navigate that fine line between protecting his members and assuring that the cost of those protections doesn’t take money away from their hard-won salaries and benefits.
Before Nespoli’s time, New York City sanitation workers had to stay on 30 years before they could collect their pensions—many would not live long enough or well enough to enjoy retirement. But today is different. “There’s no reason now you can’t continue living longer,” Nespoli says.
As for Nespoli, he has no plans to retire anytime soon. He likes what he does too much. He figures one day he’ll wake up and just know that it’s time to stop. For now, there’s too much work to be done.