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During Covid-19 crisis, garbage keeps going, so sanitation workers do, too

During Covid-19 crisis, garbage keeps going, so sanitation workers do, too

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Sanitation workers have always had a dirty job. Now it has become more dangerous due to Covid-19.

But they're heartened by the recent expressions of gratitude showing the public appreciates their willingness to put themselves in harm's way.

"A lot of people wave or give us a thumb up," said sanitation worker Korry Smith, part of a three-person crew emptying blue totes along May Street Tuesday on the East Side.

It's one of the 10 to 12 city blocks a typical shift calls for.

"Given the severity of the situation, I know a lot of people are panicked, and doing our job is a stress reliever for them, and they appreciate it," Smith said.

Olivia Truman, the truck's driver, said she also notices a difference.

"People come out, they talk to the guys, they thank us and sometimes offer water or juice," Truman said.

While most of the public was staying indoors Tuesday, trying to limit public exposure, Smith and partner Tyler Fonbille were wheeling and emptying garbage cans as the 12-ton truck moved intermittently up the street.

Smith and Fonbille, wearing face masks and two sets of gloves, flipped back the lids of the totes and slid them on the two tippers used to empty the contents. The  truck's sweep blade then compacted the load, pushing it toward the front of the truck.

"My job has changed dramatically," Smith said. "It's been an adjustment because a lot of people are staying home and we still have to come out to work."

Smith, who has worked 12 years in sanitation, said he thinks being physically fit reduces the chance he will get the novel coronavirus.

"I get a lot of exercise every day and my lungs are strong," Smith said.

But he admits being worried at times.

"I am still worried about my life, but what can I do?" Smith said. "I got to pay my bills and take care of my family."

He said he tries to pay close attention for his own safety and feels pretty protected.

"I could use some eye protection, but other than that I'm cool," Smith said. "I really don't stay too close to the garbage."

Fonbille also tries to be as careful as possible.

"It makes you want to be more cautious – the things you touch and the people who come upon you," Fonbille said. "We let them know we can take care of the garbage and they don't need to help us."

Fonbille, showing the rubber gloves he was wearing under heavier outer gloves, said he feels safe and protected on the job.

He's also grateful to be employed.

"I'm just glad to be working," Fonbille said. "It's hard for a lot of people right now, so I'm glad for that."

Henry Jackson, the city's deputy public works commissioner for streets and sanitation, said he is proud of the city's 180 sanitation workers.

"They are showing up daily in record numbers feeling they all want to be a part of the process here that is keeping this city clean and sustainable," Jackson said.

"The challenge early on was getting them to see how essential they were, but like for a snowstorm they quickly, quickly came together," he said. "Everybody is on the same page."

Jackson has seen signs asking neighbors not to put in loose garbage and to be thinking of the health of sanitation workers.

He said his employees are grateful that what they do is being recognized and appreciated.

Truman said she feels the same way. She also feels gratitude toward other workers who go to work each day and interact with the public despite the novel coronavirus.

The single mother of five, with two children still at home, said working has been stressful. She feels a little safer sitting in the cab of the truck, but it still brings her into contact with the sanitation collectors, since they alternate sitting near her while the other person stands in the back.

"I think sitting here protects me somewhat, but I worry about contracting it and possibly giving it to someone else," Truman said.

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