Pittsburgh garbage collectors protest, demanding protective gear

Wilson Wong

Garbage collection came to a standstill while sanitation workers in Pittsburgh protested on Wednesday morning, saying they are not being protected with adequate gear during the coronavirus pandemic.

Deemed essential during a statewide shutdown, Pittsburgh garbage collectors, many of whom are black, must show up for work every day as the virus continues to spread in the area.

“We risk our life every time we grab a garbage bag,” employee Sheldon White said outside the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services building. “We want better equipment, protective gear, we have no masks.”

Included in their list of demands is hazard pay, additional compensation for work involving dangerous conditions.

“Half the people don’t tie their bags, so when the stuff spills out, they tell you to pick it up,” White explained. Without protective gear, he added, workers may have to pick up “Kleenexes that people blow their nose and cough in.”

The sanitation workers’ concerns come after an employee’s wife had a presumptive positive test result, officials said Tuesday. The Environmental Services headquarters was scrubbed clean after the report was filed, and officials contacted medical professionals to ensure that they followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention protocols.

According to officials, the employee is in self-quarantine with pay, and neither he nor his wife are showing symptoms.

In a statement, Mayor Bill Peduto’s office said they were taking every precaution to protect refuse workers, including cleaning their buildings and trucks regularly, providing them with protective gear and doing daily health screenings.

“Environmental Services workers are on the frontlines of the city’s pandemic response and are performing a great public service to their fellow residents,” Peduto said. “We all need to come together in this time of need, and to continue supporting the personnel — including police, medics, firefighters — who are protecting us at this time.”

Employees were sent home with pay Wednesday morning while their union representative voiced their concerns with the city. Normal service is expected to resume Thursday.