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Day in the Life of Long Island: Sanitation workers

Patchogue Village sanitation workers Charlie Collins, left, Troy

Patchogue Village sanitation workers Charlie Collins, left, Troy Quarltere, and Eddie Bethel, on Sept. 28, 2017. Credit: Newsday / Kimberly Yuen

Editor's Note: On June 21, Newsday staff spent the day chronicling "A Day in the Life of Long Island" through photos, videos and social media posts. As a follow-up to the project, we are spending the day with people all over Long Island to learn about the responsibilities, experiences and challenges that come with an average day. If you'd like us to check out what your day on Long Island is like, email rachel.weiss@newsday.com.

“When I first started, my wife said I smelled really bad,” said 37-year-old Eddie Bethel.

But Bethel and his fellow Patchogue sanitation workers Troy Quarltere, 37, and Charlie Collins, 39, say the smells of their job don’t bother them.

“You get used to it,” Bethel said.

But there’s no escaping the elements. As long as garbage continues to get churned out by Long Islanders, they’re working year-round. Summers can be pretty brutal, the trio agrees. The stench is more pungent. The number of maggots increase. The inside of the truck heats up much more easily.

“During the winter, you can always take off a layer (if it’s gets too warm), but during the summer, you can’t really do anything,” Quarltere laughs.

“It’s like a sauna,” said Bethel, who’s been working in sanitation for four years.

Rain, however, is the toughest element to work in, they say. Rain gear can make them uncomfortably sweaty, and some residents don’t close their lids properly so the collected rainwater adds weight to the bins, making them difficult to carry.

“A lot of people think we just take trash and throw it in the truck,” Quarltere said. But there’s more to it, he assures. “Putting lids back on, keeping residents happy, picking up any trash around the area, ensuring public safety.

“The main thing is to not upset the residents and that we’re doing the right job for them.”

 

The daily grind

Every weekday at 6:30 a.m., rain or shine, the village’s 10 sanitation workers start their day in the Department of Public Works’ break room where Highway Supervisor Lou Garafola announces team and route assignments. He switches them up daily to ensure that all workers are familiar with the six routes.

In teams of three, they’ll do a quick inspection of the trucks: refill the antifreeze, check the oil, check the tires. Then, they’re off.

In Patchogue, residents receive backyard pick up. They don’t need to drag their garbage bins to the main curb twice a week. Instead, workers like Quarltere, Collins, and Bethel will bring large orange barrels with them from house to house, going up driveways and into backyards, collecting trash bags from residents’ bins and carrying it back to the truck.

“It’s a lot of lifting, a lot of walking,” said Quarltere, a lifelong Patchogue resident who’s been in the business for about 13 years.

It’s about six to nine miles a day, says Bethel, citing his fitness tracker.

A full barrel will weigh anywhere from 50 to 80 pounds, depending on the number of occupants in each house. While there’s no restriction to the amount of trash residents can put out every week, sanitation work is not the place to show off strength. The workers know their limits and will not push themselves.

“It’s not worth it,” said Bethel, who tore his rotator cuff once while trying to carry a barrel. He had to get shoulder surgery and it put him out of work for four months.

“We’ll make two trips if we have to or call someone for help,” Collins, of Bellport, said. He suffered minor injuries in his eight years on the job, but “nothing that required seeing a doctor.”

When they’re finished clearing the bins from hundreds of houses, they drive the trucks 15 minutes east to the Town of Brookhaven Landfill.

There, they empty the trucks, creating mountains of garbage.

They wind up their day back at the shop on Waverly Avenue to hose down and refuel the trucks. They usually go home around 3:30 p.m. to shower and spend the remainder of the day with their family.

Quarltere’s next stop, for example, is to pick up his sons from school.

 

Why do they do it?

The men say the job’s selling points for them include good compensation and retirement benefits.

The pay for a sanitation worker in Patchogue starts at $27.27 an hour, according to Department of Public Works Superintendent Joseph Dean. There’s also plenty of opportunity for overtime, especially during the summer months when trash pick up from Main Street is more frequent, and the winter months when they’ll have to plow snow from the roads.

The workers are part of Local 342 and also part of the New York State and Local Retirement System which includes the same pension as police, firefighters and teachers, Dean said.

"My future is secure. I have benefits for my family," Quarltere, a father of two boys, said.

The men also said they enjoy being outdoors and physically active. Plus -- there are often neat things hiding in the trash.

Bethel has found winning lottery scratch cards. Collins, 39, once found a seemingly brand new cooler and a hardly-used patio set, both of which he claimed as his own. Another worker on their team once found a working PlayStation 3 console, according to Collins.

They’re allowed to keep anything they find, Quarltere said. If people are getting rid of it, there’s nothing against that, he said.

“One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure,” Bethel said. “But I also believe things are in the trash for a reason.”

 

A dangerous job

The trash can indeed be dangerous. Exposure to hazardous chemicals is always a concern. For instance, cooking oil and paint are some of things that shouldn’t be thrown away with regular garbage, Quarltere says. If they discover a resident hasn’t disposed of harmful substances properly, they report them to their supervisor, who will issue a warning.

Nationally, refuse and recyclable material collectors were ranked fifth on Forbes’ list of the 10 Deadliest Jobs in America with a fatality rate of 38.8 out of 100,000 full-time equivalent workers in 2015, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to the data, transportation-related incidents, specifically pedestrian vehicular accidents, were the leading cause for these deaths.

Motorists tend to speed around a stopped garbage truck, and workers are constantly running back and forth from the truck to houses and across streets, Quarltere, 37, explained. If you’re not looking both ways, “you could seriously get hurt,” he said, although in his time with the village, there haven’t been any fatalities on the job.

 

It ‘just happened’

None of these men saw themselves being a sanitation worker—it kind of “just happened” for all of them.

They each got their start through a recommendation of a friend or a relative currently in the field.

“I think people look down on it," Collins said. "But there’s opportunity. You're not going to be here forever. You're going to move up."

He explained that there’s room for promotion into the Parks Division or the Highway Department, but everyone first starts as a sanitation worker.

Garafola, for example, started off as a sanitation worker and now, as a supervisor, he oversees the sanitation department and the highway department. He worked in sanitation for eight years in his 29-year-career in the Department of Public Works.

“The guys that work for me and do backyard pickup have my complete respect and admiration,” Dean said. Part of his duties include answering calls from residents but says he gets very few complaints about misconduct from his employees or them missing garbage pick up. “The way they conduct their jobs make it easier to do my job.”

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” Bethel said. “You’re outside, you’re doing your own thing. You don’t have anyone looking over your shoulder.”

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