The workers responsible for keeping city streets clean during the pandemic say that not enough is being done to protect them from their often hazardous working conditions.
During a rally Wednesday outside of a Department of Public Works operation yard, representatives from the Laborers International Union of North America (LiUNA) dispensed bottles of hand sanitizer to workers who came in and out of the site. According to Theresa Foglio-Ramirez,, a business agent and city representative of LiUNA who helped organize the rally, workers who come back to the operation yard for their bathroom breaks are sometimes reprimanded, and the restrooms provided for them in the field are often unsanitary.
“We’re not allowed to return back here, but now we’re in a pandemic. Everything’s closed, there’s nowhere for us to go, and they don’t really care,” Foglio-Ramirez said. “We’ve asked and we’ve begged, can you put out a policy that we can come back and wash our hands and you know, warm up some soup if we want it, and they won’t do it.”
The rally was joined by District 6 supervisor Matt Haney, who said he attended in solidarity with the workers.
“When their safety and health is put at risk or not protected, that puts all of our safety and health at risk because they’re the ones looking out for us and cleaning up our streets,” he said. “I think the residents I represent would be shocked to find out that these folks are being treated so poorly.”
Rachel Gordon, a spokesperson for DPW, said the department didn’t hear about the rally until this morning. She said that workers are allowed to return to the operation yard as long as they’re close by.
“They can come back to use the bathrooms at the operations yard if they’re nearby or if they want to come in on their breaks to use it,” she said. “If they’re on the other side of the city though and on a job site, they really shouldn’t be traveling all across the city if there’s another available bathroom for them.”
Foglio-Ramirez says that this is only true if the operations yard is within the allotted radius of where the workers are stationed, and she said that one worker was given a 20 day suspension for going two blocks out of his zone to use the bathroom at Costco.
Foglio-Ramirez says that before the shutdown started, the union’s attorneys wrote a letter to the mayor asking for hand washing stations out in the field, but their requests were dismissed. She said it was particularly frustrating in light of the recent corruption charges against former DPW Director Mohammed Nuru, who is accused of accepting gifts from city contractors and attempting to bribe an airport commissioner, among other allegations.
“They’re saying it’s because of cost, but you know it’s a hard pill to swallow for the workers when we just saw in the controller’s report that Muhammed passed out over three million without even paperwork,” she said, referring to a report that found a lack of safeguards on the contracting decisions made by Nuru.
Gordon said that the department has provided coolers which employees can fill with water to wash their hands with, and that there are a total of five private restrooms solely meant for public works employees out in the field.
“We do understand the need for people to use the bathrooms, and we have provided bathrooms for workers in the field at different locations,” Gordon said. “There’s not a bathroom at every single job location where people are working because they do go from site to site in the city.”