February 27, 2014
New York, NY – After spending so much time scrutinizing weather forecasts for snow this winter – the crew at Garage Number 3 in Manhattan where junior Sanitation worker Thomas Di Micelli has worked for the past seven years, likes to joke that in addition to holding degrees in “Garbology," the municipal workforce charged with the Herculean task of keeping city streets clear this season should also qualify for credentials in “Meteorology.”
“When I first came on the job, the winters weren’t that bad,” the 40-year-old Staten Island father of three tells LaborPress. “But 2010 is when we got that really bad winter. And that bad winter was still consolidated within a couple of weeks – nothing like these storms that we have been getting this year. Once one storm passes, we’re back picking up garbage, digging though snow – and then another storm hits.”
Indeed, this winter is already on record as being among the top-10 snowiest in New York City history. And aberrant arctic temperatures and 50-plus inches of snow, have taken their toll on both Sanitation Department personnel and machinery.
In January, Di Micelli – the Local 831 member who ditched a career in the New York Stock Exchange to join the DSNY just before the recession hit in 2008 – worked 12-hour shifts for 17 straight days without a break. When LaborPress spoke to him earlier this month, he had only taken one day off in February to attend a father/daughter dance at his youngest child’s school.
“I don’t have a problem with that because this is something I took a test for and if I didn’t like it, I don’t have to stay,” the college educated Di Micelli says. “I could go do something else.”
But despite that brief stint on Wall Street, Di Micelli says that being counted among “The Strongest” is a particular point of pride for a guy who grew up in a “big blue-collar family,” and really is something he’s wanted to do ever since he was a little kid.
“Everybody from all walks of life – whether it’s the person who works at McDonald’s, the person behind deli counter, or a firefighter – everybody does their part,” Di Micelli says. “And we try to do ours.”
Sadly, even with Old Man Winter determined to make things as rough as possible for Di Micelli and his co-workers, the public still sometimes forgets that the approximately 6200 workforce is perpetually shorthanded.
People get sick or injured. Vehicles and plows break down. In addition to the seemingly endless succession of 12-hour shifts, Sanitation workers like Di Micelli are often asked to work through their vacations, as well. The savviest among the fraternity of Sanitation workers learns how to prevent burnout.
“I don’t care if you’re younger or older – it takes its toll,” Di Micelli says. “When I come in for my half-hour lunch, I go right upstairs to my locker where I have a bench and I’ll pass out for a half hour.”
Anticipating when the next snowfall might hit is especially challenging because work crews know that they must pick up as much garbage along their regular routes as they can, before returning back to base once more to refuel and refit trucks in advance of an impending storm.
“The city always wants to be prepared,” Di Micelli says. “We can’t come in at 3 a.m. when the first snow starts falling because we’d fall behind. We’re constantly looking at the forecast.”
Sometimes, an entire 12-hour shift will be devoted solely to plowing – which makes returning to garbage collection duty later on, all the more difficult when senior personnel are tasked with digging out frigid piles of trash now buried beneath mounds of ice and snow.
More junior workers, meanwhile, still must head out and clear fire hydrants, crosswalks, bus stops, corners and gutters. On top of that, DSNY workers also directly respond to 311 calls about particularly treacherous patches of ice.
“Everything is done for the safety of the people out walking the streets of the city,” Di Micelli says.
Still, it’s enough to cause even the most dedicated municipal worker to start dreaming of sandy beaches and gently waving palm trees.
Unfortunately, the nature of the job often makes planning for family vacations especially problematic.
“We’re going to try and do something towards the tail-end of the school year,” Di Micelli says. “Maybe Florida.”