The information in this essay was largely culled from an excellent article written by Kiera Feldman for ProPublica, and published January 4, 2018. It always amazes me when investigative journalists dedicate months putting together a single article, both in the field and researching from their desks, all that we can be more informed. Hats off to them!
Here’s a riddle for you: What job do you have when you dream of being a garbage collector? Which profession is filled with people who look at the sanitation workers running after a garbage truck and tossing eighty-pound bags into the back of a stinking overheated truck, and say, “We look at them like they made it!”?
The answer: Garbage collectors. The world of garbage collection is not one we think of often, we’d rather leave our much maligned malodorous material at the curb, and never think of it again. But it is a $75 Billion dollar industry, and like every industry there are countless stratum with people at the bottom dreaming of climbing the rungs. The difference between a driver and a stepper hanging onto the back of the truck right next to the jaws of the beast is one strata, but much more important is the vast chasm between those who work for cities and those who work for private companies.
To put this into perspective, a far greater percentage of applicants get into Harvard University than get into the NYC Sanitation Dept. Harvard accepts about 5.2% of applicants, while the NYC Sanitation Dept will only hire 0.74% of the 68,000 people who signed up last year to join the department. This is because working for the Sanitation Department is one of the few ways that someone with only a high school diploma or even a G.E.D. can get an average salary of $47,371 (including overtime pay) in their first year! After six years on the job, the average worker makes $88,616.
The sanitation workers have Cadillac benefits, including premium health coverage, generous pensions, twenty-five paid vacation days and unlimited sick days. Once overtime is factored in, many sanitation workers are making six figures. The median annual salary for people with a only a high school diploma in the US is $35,256, so these guys are way up on the food chain. You can understand why other garbage collectors look at the NYC Dept. of Sanitation workers with dreamy eyes.
So what is life like for collectors working for private companies? Somewhere slightly above torture but way below miserable. They almost exclusively work at night because there is less traffic and they can cover more ground. Their shifts range from ten to fourteen hours, which covers between 500 and 1000 stops. Over the course of each shift they hoist as much as 40,000 pounds of trash into the hopper. They are forced to work between sixty and eighty hours a week of strenuous labor, and if they don’t they will simply stop getting called up for shifts. Countless times, drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel, many times with catastrophic results.
The companies pay the workers minimal wages; one company even has a clause in their contract that starting pay will always be only twenty five cents over minimum wage. In 1985, a stepper starting out in a private company made $16 an hour. In 2017, a driver makes less than that. On top of that, the companies that hire them are notorious for wrongfully withholding wages or overtime pay. The unions who run the private garbage companies are absolutely in the pockets of the employers, and often go to court on behalf of the companies against the employees. (The unions are run by family members of the mob. The mob used to run the garbage collection business, and when they were forced out by law in the mid 90’s, most of the companies fell mysteriously to family members of the barred mob members.)
Even worse than the wages and hours is the dangers. Being a garbage collector is the fifth most dangerous job in the US. Hooking containers that weigh a few tons to a truck and then flipping them upside down ten feet above the street level creates multiple danger zones, with workers getting crushed frequently resulting in the loss of life or limb. There are safety latches that were introduced a few years back, but many of the garbage companies remove them because they don’t fit with their containers, and replacing the containers would be expensive.
On one truck, Truck #11 of Liberty Ashes, three workers lost fingers between 2010 and 2016. Lenny Menna lost a pinkie in 2010, then Luis Acevedo lost a pinkie later that year, and finally in 2016 a third worker lost his ring finger. Liberty Ashes never received a single citation by OSHA, the governmental agency tasked with enforcing work safety, the agency that has only 67 agents to protect the millions of workers in New York State. Missing safety latches don’t only take fingers, in 2014, a stepper working for Flag Container Services on Staten Island was crushed to death when a container slipped because his truck had no safety latch. OSHA fined the company $7,000 the maximum fine allowed by law. Complaining about safety issues is also not an option for garbage collectors, that is the quickest way to guarantee that you never get called for another shift.
Broken equipment is another danger. Garbage trucks take a lot of abuse, working far more than regular trucks, and starting and stopping hundreds of times. Companies don’t replace them when they should because they are expensive, and don’t even service them when they should. Wheels routinely roll of trucks while in middle of driving. Trucks are knowingly sent out with faulty brakes and power steering.
Drivers have to become adept at figuring out the rolling distance, the distance a truck will come to a stop with no brakes. It’s about five car lengths when the truck is empty and on flat ground. As it gets filled with an additional twenty tons of garbage it becomes much trickier to figure out. And add a hill and it becomes almost impossible. Truck drivers often purposely crash their trucks into telephone poles, random parked cars, and fire hydrants just so that they can come to a stop. Drivers report calling off a shift because their dashboard burst out in flames while in middle of driving.
There are rarely any government inspections of garbage trucks, but when they are inspected, absurdly high percentages of them are deemed unsafe and pulled off the road. Gathering date from databases available to the public, twelve of the last sixteen trucks inspected in Queens County were pulled off the road. Five Star Carting trucks are grounded after 69% of inspections. Drivers are required by law to keep logs, but after equipment failure, their bosses instruct them to write “Everything is good” in the logbook, and then write the problems down on a separate piece of paper and give it to the mechanic.
Another danger relates to all garbage collectors, city employed or privately employed. Garbage often contains glass, and that glass cuts right through plastic garbage bags. As workers sling garbage bags into the hopper, they often get their arms, legs, and even heads torn open by a piece of glass. It is very difficult to find a garbage collector without a lengthy list of injuries and the scars to back it up. Then just to add icing to the cake, over the course of a shift, workers will get hit with multiple squirts of “garbage juice,” which comes leaking out of bags, and shooting out of the back of the compactor. The private companies offer no uniforms, safety gloves or eyewear, and no laundry facilities, which means that workers have to go home smelling like Eau de Landfill. And all that for twenty five cents above minimum wage…
So… What do we learn from this? For starters, just how much appreciation we need to have to a huge army of people doing all sorts of dangerous and unpleasant jobs, for close to no pay and no recognition, who keep our lives running smoothly and beautifully. Garbage collectors are not the only ones, there are literally millions of workers in hundreds of menial fields, giving their blood, sweat, and tears so that we can live our lives without any blood, sweat, and tears.
Secondly, the garbage collection world shows us the vast difference between two people doing the same job. There are the NYC Sanitation Dept. workers who have perfectly functioning trucks, uniforms and safety equipment, incredible benefits and pay, and a slow-paced day job. And there are the private company employees, who work much harder, for much longer night shifts, with inoperable equipment, no safety protection, for next to nothing. It all depends on where you work. Same job, different experiences.
There is an interesting correlation in the spiritual world. You can have two people do EXACTLY the same job, and their payoff is totally different. The first person goes to work every day grumbling about how much he hates going to work, hates his arrogant boss, lazy coworkers, and inept clients. He wishes he didn’t have to do it, and expresses that as often as people will give him the chance. And he collects his paycheck at the end of every week.
The other guy wakes up every morning excited to go to work. He’s so appreciative that he has a job allowing him to do the mitzvah of supporting his family and even allows him to do the mitzvah of charity on top of that. He doesn’t get bothered as much by his boss, coworkers, and clients, because he keeps his eye on the prize, they are all avenues for him to do those all-important mitzvahs. He collects his paycheck at the end of the every week, but on top of that, he gets enormous reward in this world, he satisfaction with his life, and in the World To Come. Our sages teach us that when someone has the intention that he is doing something for the mitzvah in it, he is rewarded for doing it as a mitzvah, even though it seems from the outside to be mundane work.
Two people doing the same job, one is living in darkness and gloom, one is living in the light. It’s all about the intention, the attitude.
When we live our lives with intentionality, even the mundane becomes a mitzvah, the “dark” hours of the day from 9-5, turn into light. Infinitely more than minimum wage.
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s dvar torah is a continuation and fleshing out of the idea mentioned above in the first piece!
In this week’s portion we witness G-d designating the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had, Moses. Let’s see if there is a lesson we can learn about what kind of person merits leadership roles. The Torah tells us of the events leading up to G-d’s appointment of Moses:
Moses tended the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro, priest of Midian. He led the sheep to the edge of the wilderness and he came to the mountain of G-d, in the area of Choreiv. An angel of G-d appeared to him in the heart of a fire in the midst of a thorn-bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was on fire but the bush was not being consumed. Moses said, “I will turn aside and see [investigate] this great sight. Why doesn’t the bush burn?” When G-d saw that he turned aside to see, El-him called to him from the midst of the thorn-bush, and said, “Moses, Moses.” (Exodus 3:1-4)
The Medrash Tanchuma says that what set Moses apart from everyone else was that when he saw something as irrational as the burning bush, it didn’t merely catch his fancy for a few moments before he moved on, it was something he realized must be investigated. He was inspired by what he saw, and he left the path he was on, to investigate this new reality. He was willing to step out of the heady rush of life, to look into something that could provide him with more meaning. Only after G-d saw that Moses turned off his regular path to investigate the matter, did He call out to him and offer him the leadership role.
Many times people see things that are very powerful, but it does not cause any significant change to their lives. America was rocked by 9/11. Everyone is moved by the situation in Gaza. But for many, the novelty wears off and soon life continues as usual.
The father of a close friends of mine taught me the importance of taking immediate action when something dramatic occurs. His son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren were in a boating accident in the Kinneret Sea. Despite having life jackets, the frigid waters could have been deadly, and some of them developed hypothermia. It was only through a great amount of Divine Providence that they were located and saved just in the nick of time.
Immediately after finding out about the accident, he saw the episode as a gift from G-d and wanted to do something concrete to show his gratitude. He started by waking up an hour earlier every day to set aside time to study Torah. He committed to facilitate the building of a neighborhood synagogue that was years in the planning but long in the coming. Three years later, the synagogue was built, he was still keeping his Torah study regimen, and his entire life was changed – all because he seized the moment when he saw a message from G-d.
In his commentary on Song of Songs (2:7), Nachmonides (1194-1270) discusses the importance of translating inspiration into some physical action. Inspiration is a fleeting emotion which on its own, has a very short lifespan. Putting inspiration into action gives it staying power. If we hear about a soldier who was just wounded in Israel, we can feel terrible, but how much more meaningful is it if we can say a small prayer for that soldier. When we wake up and walk outside into a glorious morning with the sun shining brightly and the air crisp and refreshing, we can think about what a nice day it is, or we can say thanks to G-d for giving us such a beautiful day. And when we hear on the news about yet one more rocket attack on Sderot, we can commit to studying ten minutes of Torah every day on behalf of our brothers and sisters living through such difficult times.
We all have good eyes, but the true leaders amongst us, are those whose eyes and body are strongly connected.
This week’s parsha, Shmos, is the first one in the Book of Exodus. This book deals with the story of the Jewish people’s enslavement in Egypt and their subsequent miraculous redemption. One of the reasons it is so important is because the Egyptian ordeal is the spiritual root of all the exiles the Jews have endured, and learning about it helps us understand how we can best navigate life in Diaspora.
The parsha starts off by listing the original people who came down to Egypt, and then mentions that Yosef and all his brothers passed away. This is key, as exiles always begin when we experience detachment from the previous generations, and an abandonment of their ways. Soon after the death of the last son of Jacob, a new Pharaoh arose in Egypt. Some say he was a new king and others say that he put out new decrees, but according to both opinions he didn’t bode well for the Jews.
Pharaoh convened his council and decided that the Jews, who were becoming numerous and prosperous, were a threat to his nation, and thus he began subjugating and enslaving them. Not only that, but based on his astrologers’ predictions that a male Jewish savior was soon to be born, he commanded the two Jewish midwives to kill every Jewish male infant. Luckily for me, they didn’t listen, but, au contraire, helped nourish the babies and keep them alive and healthy. For this brave and heroic act, G-d rewarded them by giving their children the Kehuna, the priesthood, and Malchus, the kingship.
Then Pharaoh kicked it up a notch by decreeing that the Egyptians throw every Jewish male into the Nile River.Eventually, as the astrologers’ predictions got more ominous, he decreed that all male children, Egyptians included, be thrown in the water.
When the decrees came out, a leader of the Jews named Amram declared that Jewish couples should separate to spare themselves from the horror of watching their sons thrown into the water. His daughter Miriam pointed out to him that his declaration was worse than Pharaoh’s, because at least Pharaoh was allowing Jewish girls to live, whereas Amram’s declaration was spelling doom for the entire Jewish people! Heeding his daughter’s wise words, Amram remarried his wife Yocheved, and six months later they had a son.
When their son was born, the house filled with light, and they saw that he was born circumcised, so they knew they were dealing with a special baby. They hid him in the house for 3 months, because the Egyptians were expecting the baby to be a full term baby (9 months for those who didn’t know that) and after three months they put him in a little waterproof cradle, in the Nile, with his sister watching from a distance. At that exact time, Basya, the daughter of Pharaoh, was going to the Nile to bathe and she saw the child, drew him out, had pity on him and decided to keep him. She named him Moshe.
Although Moshe grew up as a prince, he would go out and see the hardships of his brethren, and would take part in their labor. One day he saw an Egyptian beating the life out of a Jew and, after ensuring that no one was looking, he killed the Egyptian. This event became known to Pharaoh, and Moshe was forced to flee to Midian.
In Midian, Moshe met his wife, the daughter of Midian’s ex-High Priest who had rejected the Midianite Gods, and he settled down to life as a shepherd. One day, while tending to the sheep, he saw a burning bush. Upon approaching it, G-d called out to him from the bush and told him that He had chosen him to lead the Jews out of Egypt. Moshe protested, saying he wasn’t worthy, but eventually G-d convinced him to go. G-d gave him three miracles to show the Jews as a sign that he was G-d’s messenger, and Moshe headed back to Egypt. In Egypt, he showed the signs to the Jewish elders, who believed it was G-d’s sign of a coming redemption
Moshe appeared before Pharaoh with his brother acting as his interpreter since his speech was hindered by a burning experience he had had as a child. The pair demanded that Pharaoh let the Jews go to serve G-d in the wilderness. Pharaoh claimed to not know of the Jewish G-d and flat-out refused. Not only that, he decided to force the Jews to work harder in order to prevent them from wasting their time with foolish hopes of redemption. The people complained to Moshe that after promising them salvation, he actually made their lives harder. The Parsha closes with G-d assuring Moshe that not only will Pharaoh let the Jews go, he will beg them to leave!
Quote of the Week: Confidence is directness and courage in meeting the facts of life. ~ John Dewey
Random Fact of the Week: Honeybees have a strange type of hair on their eyes!
Funny Line of the Week: “And then at the end of the letter I like to write PS- This is what part of the alphabet would look like if Q and R were eliminated.”
Have a Majestic Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham