Editorial: Pittsburgh, protect our sanitation workers


Steve Strunsky, NJ Advance Media | TNS

A garbage collector empties recyclables into a Basso Rubbish Removal truck in New Jersey. Garbage collection in Pittsburgh came to a standstill Wednesday morning after sanitation workers from the City held a demonstration insisting they were not receiving proper protective gear to continue working during the coronavirus pandemic.

In Pittsburgh, garbage collection came to a standstill Wednesday morning. Sanitation workers from the City held a demonstration in the Strip District, insisting they were not receiving proper protective gear to continue working during the coronavirus pandemic. 

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

Sanitation workers are providing essential, life sustaining services for the Pittsburgh community during this time. They deserve to be protected — with both gear and hazard pay — while working under such conditions.

Amidst statewide shutdowns, the government deemed sanitation workers as essential employees. Therefore, they still must report to work despite various social distancing measures or, in the case of Allegheny County, a shelter-in-place order. But while many essential employees can take protective measures — like social distancing, wearing a mask or touching few objects — garbage collectors often cannot. 

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

Data collected by the CDC suggests that even brief contact with a contaminated surface or object, like a used tissue, can transmit the virus. 

Workers raised safety concerns early this week after an employee’s wife had a presumptively positive COVID-19 test result. 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 CBS. Still, though, sanitation workers drive in the same vehicle and come into close contact with one another. 

In a statement, Mayor Bill Peduto’s office said they were taking every precaution to protect sanitation workers. 

“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.”

The sanitation workers returned to work Thursday. Still though, it’s unclear if their demands have been met. 

We stand in solidarity with our City’s sanitation workers — metaphorically, because social distancing is more important than ever. Their jobs are more important than ever right now. They deserve to be paid hazard and protected.