New Orleans sanitation workers began a historic strike action on May 5. That day a group of Black workers who work as “hoppers”, hopping off and on the trucks and load waste, refused to get on the trucks. Instead, they picketed outside the central office of their employer, Metro Services Group, the private company that has a $10 million contract with the city of New Orleans for waste removal services.
The hoppers work for Metro Services Group, but are hired by a third party app-based temporary hiring agency, PeopleReady. Their demands are clear and have expressed them to their employers. These include are the provision of proper personal protective equipment (PPE), the weekly payment of $150 in hazard pay, an increase in hourly wage from $10.25 to $15, and for the garbage trucks, which leak toxic hydraulic fuel on the workers, to be repaired.
Jonathan Edward, one of the striking sanitation workers and a member of the City Waste Union, explained to Peoples Dispatch their motivations for going on strike, “We feel like everything we are fighting for is necessary. Per week, a New Orleans Sanitation worker lifts around 250,000 pounds of weight. As workers doing this essential work, we are making $10.25 per hour with no benefits. For every 500 pounds a worker lifts, we get paid only $1. We are asking for basic rights that every worker deserves.”
As workers hired by a third party company, the hoppers have no access to benefits, no sick leave, and no access to healthcare, “just hourly pay and a paycheck every week,” Edward explains. Amid the global health crisis their lack of access to healthcare becomes even more challenging, Edward comments that for any medical treatment “We have to pay out of pocket, it is usually $250 to even speak with a doctor.”
Instead of engaging in dialogue, on May 6, just one day after the strike began, the third party app-based temporary hiring agency PeopleReady fired all of the striking workers and brought in prisoners on work-release to replace them. The wage allotted to the prisoners is $9.25 but as reported by Nola.com, the private company Lock5 which manages prisoners on work-release “takes up to 64 percent of inmate pay to cover its own expenses,” which would leave prisoners with around $3.33/hour.
Edward told Peoples Dispatch that in addition to the exploitative pay, the prisoners “have no training and no say over the conditions they are working in.” He says PeopleReady is “preying on them being locked up, the [prisoners] just want to be out there, just to be free, and they are still not being provided with proper PPE you need to deal with this sanitation work.”
According to Edward, the response of Metro Services Group to their demands was to allege that “our needs are already met because they provided us with N-95 masks and latex gloves.” However, according to Edward, “we did not receive any of this, no latex gloves or anything. Our number one demand is for them to provide us with the proper PPE, to all of our workers immediately and consistently, on a daily basis.”
For sanitation workers, the demand for PPE is particularly important. Even before the pandemic, workers on garbage trucks were exposed to a great amount of bacteria and germs. With the added risk of coronavirus, the lack of access to this protective gear can have devastating impacts on workers and their families.
Edward and the other members of the City Waste Union continue to picket the Metro Services Group office to make their voices heard. They have also been organizing other actions such as an online petition in order to raise their demands to the Mayor’s office.
He says that, “We are waiting to hear from them to see if they will come up with an agreement or work with PeopleReady to reach an agreement. Either is fine with us as long as we get our jobs back and for the changes to be made.”
The sanitation workers are also hope to have a meeting with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
“As the condition of the employee and workers are controlled by both PeopleReady and Metro Services Group, they are joint employers and equally legally responsible for the money they get from the city funds,” Edward explains, and declares that “if the demands of the workers are not met it is only right that the city of New Orleans cancel both of their contracts.”
The sanitation workers have also denounced the institutional racism reflected in the actions of the company and city government, which deny the basic rights of Black workers and putting them and their families at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Louisiana has been hard-hit by the pandemic and Black people have made up for 70% of the COVID-19 deaths in Louisiana despite being only 30% of the total population. The state currently has 32,662 confirmed cases and 2,315 deaths.
Portraits of the New Orleans sanitation workers, members of the City Waste Union: