Posted by Councilman Bobby Henon on March 10, 2014 at 3:48 PM
The day started not unlike any others for me: wake up early, take my boys to school and start heading south into Center City. I took a detour stop at my District Office, where I went through some messages before getting into my uniform for the day. The Streets Department was helpful in loaning me some coveralls and gloves for the next few hours. I’m glad they did, and I’m glad they were warm, because I was about to head out into 25-degree weather to get a first-hand look at the work of our sanitation professionals for Undercover Councilman.
The idea behind all of these trips is for me to get out of the office and into the field. Loosely based on the TV show “Undercover Boss,” where the CEO of a company goes undercover as an hourly employee and ends up with a fuller picture of how their company runs, Undercover Councilman isn’t so much an undercover sting operation that the title suggests. On the show, it always seems like the boss doesn’t have much in common with their employees.
As we pulled up to Torresdale and Tyson Aves, I met the three-man crew I would be working with. They were from three different part of the city, came from three different backgrounds and sets of experiences, but shared the same goal: making Philadelphia a better and cleaner place to live and raise a family. In that respect, we had a lot in common.
I mentioned the cold earlier, which was actually helpful because one of the first jokes someone cracked was to “come out in the summer.” Sure, it’s cold now. But imagine how fresh trash smells on the curb in mid-August. After thanking whoever scheduled this for mid-January instead, I started down the first block.
This work requires a unique physicality. Constant bending, stooping, lifting and tossing is added to the “trash Jenga” that you need to play when loading garbage into the back of the truck before pulling the lever on the compacter. After one block, I was again happy that it was January. Even though it was now inching toward freezing outside, I was working up a sweat. The crew made plenty of reminders that this was very different from my regular morning workout routine.
The three-man crew I worked with was standard: one driver and two others trailing behind picking up trash on either side of the street. They work in chunks of time, taking a break only when the truck itself is full. After it’s taken to a different site offload its cargo, the truck is brought back for the crew to set out for another run. The average crew covers approximately seven miles in more populated neighborhoods and as many as 12 miles where homes are more spread out, collecting between 32,000 and 36,000 lbs of trash along the way. Sanitation, as an agency, serves nearly 530,000 residents in total.
Set-out times have also changed, based on legislation I introduced in City Council last year. Now, residents are allowed to set trash out at 5:00 between October and April, allowing them to adjust to daylight savings and get trash to the curb safer and sooner. But lost in those numbers is the true value of the hard work these crews put in, which is exactly why I was out with them.
One of my crew mates, Mamadou Sacko, came from West Africa and has been working with Sanitation for more than a decade. He talked about how much he genuinely enjoys the job and about how they get to know and recognize residents along their route. It’s common for Sanitation workers to be available to work other districts in the City, but they commonly stay in the same area.
There are plenty of safety issues they deal with, too. For instance, the powerful rear-loading compactor can, at times, expel debris at a high clip. If you’re not careful and aware, you can get hurt. The same is true for what is actually picked up. Our crew alone picked up more than just bags of trash, such as a toilet (I didn’t grab that one) and an armoire (I did help there.).
I started hitting a groove and we got some good volume picked up. Once we were done, I took the time to thank the crew and the Sanitation staff that had joined along for the morning.
It’s immensely helpful for me to get out of City Hall once in a while, not just to pitch in, but to get a better sense of operations. I was able to literally get my hands dirty, talk with employees and do their jobs right alongside them. I also resisted the urge to shake a constituent’s hand with my trash glove when I saw them taking their last-second trash to the curb before we picked it up. Probably for the best.
I’m grateful for my three Sanitation colleagues that let me work with them, along with Streets and Sanitation for agreeing to have me for the day. Their workload only increased in the coming weeks when we were hit with even more snow, on the way to the third-snowiest Winter in the history of Philadelphia. All in all, it was another good trip.