By Ayana Jones
PHILADELPHIA — More than 100 Philadelphia sanitation workers rallied in Center City on Tuesday for hazard pay, better personal protective equipment and coronavirus testing.
Omar Salaam, a business agent for the sanitation workers union, said they have been advocating for workers to receive better conditions since before the coronavirus outbreak began in Philadelphia.
“The fight for proper PPE, the fight for hazardous pay did not come into existence when COVID plagued our country,” he said during the rally held Tuesday morning by AFSCME Local 427 in Love Park.
Salaam says almost 60 sanitation workers have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, while another 50 had to self-quarantine after being exposed to the virus.
“We touch every residential household in the city of Philadelphia — that increases our exposure dramatically, but our guys come out there and they go to work,” Salaam said.
He said the city tried to intimidate sanitation workers, who are primarily African American, by threatening to fire them if they took an unauthorized absence to attend the rally. Salaam printed out a letter sent to the workers from Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams.
The union said the workers’ median salary is $36,000.
During the rally, Darrell Rockwell, a sanitation worker who caught the coronavirus from a colleague, spoke about unsafe working conditions. Rockwell’s son also ended up contracting the virus from him.
“Our conditions are real bad,” said Rockwell, who operates a sanitation truck.
“They haven’t given us the proper tools to protect ourselves. We have to get our own masks, our own gloves, our own everything. For them to not give us as hazard pay at least during this pandemic is ridiculous.”
A city spokesperson responded to the workers’ decision to rally.
“While we respect the First Amendment rights of all our employees — including the right to protest, the Administration disagrees with the underlying premise of the particular argument being raised during today’s demonstration,” the spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement.
Since March 1, the city purchased and distributed thousands of masks, disposable gloves and reusable gloves to Streets Department sanitation employees, in addition to the standard-issue reusable gloves, the spokesperson said. Employees were also given hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, safety glasses, face shields and puncture proof boots. Workers can also be tested at pharmacies and urgent care center, which is covered by their health insurance.
The city spokesperson said the workers’ contract was extended during the COVID pandemic. That one-year extension provided workers with a 2% raise and a $750 bonus.
The rally comes as Mayor Jim Kenney’s proposed budget cuts $18.5 million from the Streets Department.
Ayana Jones is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.