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City workers say they’re picking up 50 percent more garbage — with no masks

“We’ve got to clean these routes because we don’t want no problems with rats. But it’s a lot of garbage. Everybody’s cleaning out. You’ve got couches. You’ve got everything in the alleys. It’s loaded,” a union official told the Sun-Times.

Garbage bins in a Chicago alley
The workload for garbage pickup workers in Chicago has increased by half during the stay-home order, a union official said Tuesday.
Sun-Times file photo

Chicago’s forgotten army of 2,000 refuse collection workers are picking up 50 percent more garbage during the statewide, stay-at-home order — but without the masks distributed to other front-line workers, according to their union leader.

Steve Marcucci, vice-president of Laborers Local 1001, said his members are working harder than ever to keep the city clean and prevent the sheer volume of garbage from piling up in alleys, triggering an explosion in the city’s rat population.

It’s not an easy job.

The stay-at-home order means more people are working from home and cooking at home, or ordering carry-out instead of eating out. That means a lot more garbage.

“It’s probably 50 percent more. Instead of one cart, we’re picking up two carts now. It’s huge. Everybody’s home. Everybody’s eating five meals a day,” Marcucci told the Sun-Times.

“We’ve got to get this garbage picked up. We’ve got to clean these routes because we don’t want no problems with rats. But it’s a lot of garbage. Everybody’s cleaning out. You’ve got couches. You’ve got everything in the alleys. It’s loaded. It’s unbelievable.”

With all the focus on getting masks and other personal protective equipment to first-responders and health-care employees, Marcucci said the 2,000 employees charged with keeping Chicago clean have been forgotten.

“How`bout some masks? How about some shields maybe? We don’t get nothing from the city to help us. ... Our people need masks, too. When residents come out and speak to `em when they’re picking up their garbage, they should definitely have some kind of mask on,” Marcucci said.

At a City Hall news conference Tuesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said it is “not surprising to me that there’s more refuse and hopefully, recycling that people are putting out on the curb” during the stay-at-home order.

“I’m not aware that the sanitation workers aren’t being equipped [with masks]. That’s something we’ll look into. … We’re going to make sure they’re protected,” the mayor said.

“A lot of sanitation workers always wear gloves all year `round because of the hazards of handling other peoples’ waste. But we’ll certainly look into the mask question.”

In a follow-up email, Streets and Sanitation spokeswoman Christina Villarreal said protective gear distributed to sanitation workers includes boots and gloves but not masks.

“Employees are permitted to use cloth face coverings while at work unless the use of such cloth face covering would pose a health or safety risk to the employee. The use of cloth face coverings by employees is voluntary,” Villarreal wrote.

“The use of simple cloth face coverings is an additional measure to slow the spread of the virus. This measure does not replace social distancing.”

For years, the city’s third-largest department was notorious for its sky-high absenteeism rate. It was reduced only through a city crackdown.

But Marcucci acknowledged it’s “probably pretty high right now” because “so many people are scared to come to work.”

“They might have a runny nose. They might have a cough. They might have the flu. They might have something, and it’s better for them to stay home than come to work,” he said.

“Their children or their grandparents are getting sick. The virus is attacking us. We have a lot of people who call in sick because they don’t feel good. They’ve got to stay home.”

At the very least, Marcucci said, laborers want, need and deserve a pat on the back for putting themselves and their families at risk to keep Chicago clean.

“How about the mayor coming on TV when she does her talks and saying thank you? Thank you to all the sanitation laborers. Thank you to all her employees doing the job every day for her. Morale would be boosted unbelievable,” Marcucci said.

“We’re on the front lines, too. It’s the police, the fire and us. … Right now, they feel like they’re getting no gratitude for keeping the city clean. The boss ain’t giving them s - - t. Her title can be mayor. She’s still the boss.”

So far, the only change made to protect city laborers is a change in how they’re transported to job sites. Instead of signing in at ward yards and riding vans to the start of their refuse collection routes, laborers are now permitted to drive from home to the starting point. That means workers avoid congregating at the ward yard and riding in 10-seat vans.

“It’s helping a lot because there’s only one laborer in the truck now with one driver. It’s a lot better than sitting on top of each other,” Marcucci said.