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By the time the coronavirus pandemic began unfurling across the U.S. in March, Terrill Haigler had only been working as a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sanitation worker for a few months. The 30-year-old spent two years on a waitlist for the job and just as he began to get accustomed to the physically demanding role, the city shut down and sanitation workers like Haigler found themselves working 12-hour days to make a dent in what was quickly becoming a cataclysmic, citywide trash pileup.

Initially, the public blamed workers like Haigler for the mounting debris, but Philadelphians came to realize the plight of essential sanitation workers—people doing backbreaking work without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) or hazard pay, and whose department just had their budget slashed due to COVID-19. But Haigler himself is a large part of the reason the public’s perception of sanitation workers has shifted.

In June, the father of three created the Instagram account @_YaFavTrashman to give the public an inside look at what it means to be a sanitation worker during COVID-19. Workers like Haigler are on the frontlines of the pandemic, and at the forefront of the COVID-19 labor movement led by essential workers who—as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported—receive low wages, few protections, and are “risking their lives on the job speak out about unsafe working conditions.” 

Nearly 17,000 people now follow @_YaFavTrashman and Haigler is using his platform to advocate for his fellow sanitation workers. He designed a T-shirt to sell, the proceeds of which will be used to purchase proper PPE for sanitation workers, including KN95 masks. As of Aug. 11, Haigler has sold more than 1,400 T-shirts.

In a conversation with Prism earlier this month, Haigler shared what he and other sanitation workers are up against. Here he is, in his own words:

 On a typical day, I wake up around 5:30 AM. I shower the night before, so I just have to get dressed and get to work. I get to the bus stop around 6:15 and at the end of the route, the city provides a van to pick us up and take us to the yard by about 6:50 AM I sign in before 7 AM, which is when the day really starts. Because of COVID, my driver does a deep cleaning of the truck. He gets there around 6:30 to put gas in the truck and clean the truck with Lysol, disinfectant, and bleach wipes because we don’t know who was in the truck before. After that, the driver, me, and my partner leave the yard around 7:10 and start our route. We have a map and we know what section of the city we’re in, but our route is different every day. We’re typically in the same neighborhood—for me that’s Frankford, but that’s subject to change. If another yard needs help, they could send us to a totally different area in South Philly, for example. You just never really know. When I get to the yard every day, I just think, “Alright, let’s see what they got for me this morning.”

I’d only been working this job for a couple of months before I felt like I had things down and I could hold my own on the truck—and then COVID hit. What a time to sign up for this job, right? When the city first shut down, it was the middle of the week around March 15 and my coworkers and I automatically seen an increase in trash. That was the immediate difference that we noticed. When COVID hit, there was about 30% more trash—not just generally, but from each household. I just remember thinking, “It’s about to be really heavy out here.” It hasn’t stopped since then. It’s actually increasing. The more days we get behind, the more it increases.

We technically work 7 AM to 3 PM, but we are doing a lot of overtime. We care about the city’s cleanliness. A lot of people think we just do our jobs and go home, but we really do care that all the trash is picked up. A lot of us are staying from 7 AM to 7 PM, 14 days in a row, to try to make a dent in the trash. At the height of the worst, we were behind maybe four days worth of trash.

The schedule and the work can be brutal. You have to realize, not everyone doing this job is in their 20s. We have some veterans whose bodies are breaking down. We have people who have tested positive, so we had to quarantine the whole truck and that takes a toll on people. We’ve also had huge storms that stopped operations for a few hours. There is a lot against us, I’ll tell you that. There is a lot against us, but we are trying to push through.

Mental health-wise, there are days when this is excruciating. You kind of feel like it’s Groundhog’s Day. I wake up to the same thing every single day. You know what I mean? I just never saw an end to the trash. It just never ends. That beats you down mentally, and it beats you down emotionally. You wake up and the trash is still there. There’s no end to it. You’re like, “How, how? How is this still here? It was here on Monday and it’s Thursday. How?” The public’s response sometimes hurts. When we pick up the trash, someone might say, “Oh, it’s about time.” That doesn’t help.

This is one of the reasons I started the @_YaFavTrashman Instagram page. It’s a way to communicate with the public. I’m asking just for a little patience and understanding. If they see my face, maybe they will know we’re real people out here and that we’re not behind [picking up trash] on purpose. There’s just so much trash, so I’m asking that they give us a little grace. I also thought, “Man, there’s got to be a way for the public to help us.” Because not only is the trash laying around, but in some neighborhoods it’s laying sloppy—stuff isn’t tied up, bags aren’t tied, there’s trash everywhere. That takes even more of a toll because it means we have to do even more work. So, I wanted to start the page to give people insight on what it is to be a trashman. I also give tips to make our job easier, which will hopefully bring up the morale of my coworkers and get this trash moving.

Speaking out for the first time, of course I was a little nervous, but I also knew there was such a dire need. I made the page June 17 after a really rough day at work. Trash was piling up, pickups were delayed, and I had three people argue with me on my route. It was just an outlet at first, a way to express myself as a trashman and let people know what it’s like for us. The page really picked up when I went live one day and gave updates in real time. People were asking all kinds of questions and I think it made them see the human side of the sanitation department; it made them see we’re not machines. I see myself as kind of a liaison. I’m helping to bridge the gap between the public and the sanitation department during COVID, which is a really hard time for all of us. We’re all going through it together. I don’t think anything like this has ever been done before, but I think it’s important to give the public a look into one of the hardest, dirtiest jobs in America—especially during a pandemic.

I have thought a lot about why people don’t always see us as human and I think it’s because people really don’t have to think about what happens to their trash. Literally for my whole life, you put the trash in the can, you take the trash to the curb, you go to work, you come back, and the trash is gone. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t think about the people that are driving around in a heat wave to get that trash or working during a monsoon that leaves them in wet clothes all day. You don’t have to think about the people dealing with oversized rodents in the bags. People just don’t think about that stuff.

I think the Instagram page has created a bit more understanding on what it is to be an essential worker; what it looks like to be a sanitation worker. I believe the page is making a difference because people are starting to understand what we’re up against. It gives them an inside look. I tell stories, I give them scenarios we’re dealing with, and I give tips. For example, one tip I gave was to tell people to poke or drill a hole in the bottom of their cans so that the cans don’t hold the water when it rains really bad. A lot of people [direct message] me and go, “You know, as simple as that tip is, I would have never thought about doing that.” As a trashman, I wish there were holes at the bottom of every can because when we pick up cans after the rain, there might only be three bags of cans, but it’s 70 pounds of water.

I’ve only been doing this job for about seven months. My coworkers and the veterans have been teaching me and then I share the tips with the public. I just felt like if I don’t share this knowledge, it’s not going to help my route or my coworkers. The public could really benefit from these tips, and it could help us out. So, I started sharing. You know that saying, “When you know better, you do better”? That’s my expectation now. When the public knows what’s going on, I have an expectation for them to do better. And they have, they really have.

The amount of support we have gotten from the public is mind boggling. My coworkers are ecstatic. One coworker was like, ‘Man, I used to hate doing this one block on my route, but now everybody is giving us water and Gatorade and their trash is neatly tied.’ That makes the day go easier when we’re dealing with a pandemic and 30 percent more trash. The public has really become engaged and they seem to care about what’s going on with us, which is why I started to talk about PPE. We were given some PPE [by the city], but we don’t have everything we need.

The things we were given aren’t really conducive to helping us do our job. They gave us head shields and gloves once a month. The gloves are not puncture proof and the head shields have this big, plastic thing on the front that makes it hard to do the job. We also got cloth masks that aren’t very breathable and they get really hot, especially during the summer. I’m working hard, so I’m breathing hard and those masks get hot. Your body just overheats. That’s why I’m selling T-shirts on Instagram now. The funds will go toward getting us proper PPE, like puncture-proof gloves, more cleaning supplies, and KN95 face masks that are more breathable and will protect us from droplets. If we had these things, I think it would really turn operations around and less people would be sick in our department. Last time I heard, I think around 200 workers had to quarantine. If we had this PPE, I think workers would feel like they’re being supported.

Thankfully, our union has been really amazing and helpful. Our leaders in Local 427 [of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees] have all reached out to me and said they support me and appreciate how I’m trying to get the word out on the issues we’re facing as sanitation workers. One of my main goals now is getting a seat at the table and helping to figure out how we can get hazard pay and adequate cleaning supplies and PPE.

I truly believe sanitation workers are getting closer to having a seat at the table, and that’s why we continue to fight. That’s why I keep using my page and talking to journalists because even though there are a hundred million things going on, sanitation needs to be at the top of the list. I truly believe the spread of disease and COVID would be so much worse if it weren’t for us sanitation workers. Hazard pay has been a really big issue for the sanitation department for years and I think it’s time it gets addressed.

I don’t feel upset that we have to fight for these things. As a parent, I try to look at everything from different perspectives. When I try to put myself in the city’s shoes, I think about how they’re dealing with a pandemic and a lot of uncertainty, just like we are.

When this all started happening in March, I don’t think anyone was really prepared for it to last into the summer and now we’re looking at the fall and into next year. If I ask the public to give trash men some grace on cleaning up this mess, then I have to give city officials some grace in adapting and doing right with the PPE. That’s what the T-shirt fundraiser is about. I’m not one to wait on anybody to do anything for me. I just felt like the city is trying to do the best they can in their lane and I can do the best I can in my lane. Maybe we can meet in the middle somewhere and bring our lanes together. I’m not trying to blame anybody. I’m not pointing fingers. I’m not even upset. What I’ve been saying the whole time is that I’m just trying to find a solution for my coworkers. I just want to be a part of the solution to make sure me and my coworkers are safe. That’s it.

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.