Garbage collection to resume after workers demonstrate over COVID-19 concerns

click to enlarge Trash placed out for Thursday collection in Pittsburgh. - CP PHOTO: AMANDA WALTZ

CP photo: Amanda Waltz

Trash placed out for Thursday collection in Pittsburgh.

This morning, a group of sanitation workers from the Bureau of Environmental Services gathered in the Strip District, refusing to work because of claims that the City of Pittsburgh was putting them at risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus.

A Facebook live video posted by sanitation worker Fitzroy Moss captured the scene early this morning outside of the Department of Environmental Services facility on Railroad Street. During the demonstration, Moss and other workers claimed that the city was not providing them with the proper protective gear during garbage pickup and that they needed guaranteed hazard pay in case of infection.

Moss also claimed that their department lied about evaluating them for the virus, despite having them sign forms saying otherwise, and that their department had not informed them that two people “on the job” had already tested positive for it.

“If one of us gets this and we don't know, we're all gonna get it … and some of us may lose our damn lives,” says one worker in the video. Moss and others added  that they worried about spreading the virus to their families or residents after touching garbage or recycling cans on their routes.

The group also claims that garbage pick-up workers were being locked out of the Department of Environmental Services facility, with one saying he was not even being allowed to use the bathroom, implying that employees inside the building were being protected from infection while they were not.

“That's all they care about is us picking up the garbage,” Moss says in the video. “They don't even care about our health, right?”

After about 90 minutes that included exchanges with a union representative, the workers were sent home for the day with pay.

The Mayor's Office then released a statement refuting some of the claims made during the demonstration.

“The City of Pittsburgh is taking all due precautions to protect refuse workers from the Bureau of Environmental Services who were sent home today due to fears over COVID-19 exposure, and has been taking these precautions with all essential City personnel since the start of the pandemic,” says the statement.

It adds that the city has been following Centers for Disease Control guidance including “having Environmental Services buildings and trucks cleaned regularly; providing workers with protective glasses and gloves; and doing daily health screenings.” Workers are also “given gloves each day that they are not allowed to take home, and have been offered plastic gloves to wear under them if they wish,” have access to wipes to clean their equipment, and are encouraged to wash their uniform daily.

As for the form the workers signed, the statement says this was mischaracterized, and that workers are given a health care check-list each morning to identify if they have any symptoms of the virus. The reason for the building being locked was due to shifts being staggered to “lower interaction among workers in the main Environmental Services building.” Now refuse collection workers must come in at different times between 5 and 8 a.m.

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

The statement says officials from the Peduto administration and Teamsters Local 249, which represents about 140 environmental services workers, are now trying to clear up any misunderstandings.

However, the statement does confirm that the wife of a refuse worker had a “presumptive positive test result” reported yesterday. As a result, the Environmental Services headquarters was reportedly cleaned and sanitized last night, and the City contacted medical professionals immediately to make sure it was following all CDC protocols.

The worker and his wife are not showing symptoms but as a precaution, the worker has been placed in self-quarantine with pay.

A spokesperson in the Facebook video also confirms this, as he is shown telling the crowd that a “man whose family member is infected is now in quarantine,” but that he was “not showing any symptoms, so you don't have to worry.”

As reported by the Post-Gazette, Peduto said that “due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the city doesn’t have the right to disclose details about patients who might have the coronavirus,” and that it’s “up to the state Department of Health and the Allegheny County Health Department to do that.”

While many public services have been shut down in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, with offices and facilities now being closed to the public until further notice, Peduto announced that city sanitation workers are still required to pick up trash and recycling.

“We will provide continuous operations throughout this crisis. City government never shuts down and public services will be offered continuously throughout this pandemic,” Peduto said in a statement released on March 16 addressing operational changes in response to COVID-19.

Regular garbage pickup routes are set to resume Thursday, and residents are being told to leave any curbside trash they originally set out to be collected. Beginning Monday, the city will suspend pickups of bulk and yard waste to help with staffing issues.

City officials also reminded residents to follow certain guidelines to make refuse collection easier and safer for Environmental Services workers, including using properly secured, leak-proof bags, and staying 50 feet back from refuse and recycling vehicles.

This story will be updated as new information becomes available.