As the controversy over delays in Philadelphia’s trash collection began to mount in June, sanitation worker Terrill Haigler heard residents’ anguished and, (this is Philly) sometimes angry, cries about the garbage piling up on city streets.
“People were yearning for an understanding and an answer to why their trash is the way it is,” he said.
So he created an Instagram account — @YaFavTrashman — to give people “an inside look at the daily habits of a trashman,” a profession he believes is “probably the most underrated job in America.”
“Before I became a trashman, I didn’t know what it entailed,” Haigler said. “But after I became a trashman, everybody’s going to know.”
In just six weeks, Haigler’s account has garnered more than 4,400 followers, and a fund-raising campaign he created for PPE equipment and cleaning supplies for his fellow city sanitation workers has already raised more than $8,700.
But the greatest reward for Haigler has been a marked increase in patience and understanding from the public.
“The way that I see it is we’re only going to get change if the public is behind us, if they support us,‘” he said.
Haigler would like to emphasize for the record, on the record, and for all of recorded history that he loves being a Philly trashman. It’s a job the one-time personal trainer and demo worker spent two years on a waiting list to get (he was #765 in line) before finally being called up late last year.
“The civil service list for laborer is a very large list and it often takes quite some time before candidates are reached on a list as a result of their ranking,” said Keisha McCarty-Skelton, spokesperson for the Streets Department, which oversees the city’s sanitation division.
As a sanitation department laborer working mainly in Frankford, Haigler is the guy picking the trash off the sidewalk and putting it in the truck. Before he began on Dec. 30, he thought that’s all the job entailed.
“But there’s so many elements. You don’t know what kind of bag you’re going to have and you never know what’s inside the bag,” he said, agreeing only to divulge the worst contents he’s encountered off the record (but you can guess. And you are probably right). “Plus, you don’t know if cars will be separated enough for you to even walk through.”
The physical demands are also greater than in any of Haigler’s previous careers — the heavy bags, the 30,000 steps in a day, the unexpected rodents of unusual sizes, and the smells, those punch-you-in-the-face Philly odors.
As tough as the job was before, since COVID-19 and quarantine hit, it’s “taking off to another level,” he said.
“It usually takes 10 or 12 double-sided blocks to fill the truck, now it’s four or five blocks because the trash is built up because all the residents are home now,” he said.
To compound the problem, as sanitation workers test positive for COVID-19 (more than 100 of 1,100 trash collectors have, according to union leaders), their colleagues who came in close contact with them also must quarantine.
“If you have 200 people in the yard and 25 people test positive, there are three people in a truck, so 75 people out of 200 have to quarantine,” Haigler said. “Then, couple that with more trash on the ground.”
As a city resident, Haigler, a 30-year-old father of three, has experienced the trash pileup firsthand outside of the North Philly apartment complex where he lives. So, he, too, must have patience with garbage collection.
During his frequent Instagram Live sessions he hosts on his account, Haigler answers residents’ questions about trash collection in real time and shares tales from the job, like when a resident ran seven houses in his underwear to catch the garbage truck to throw something away.
Haigler offers tips on how residents can be proactive in supporting their sanitation workers and ways they can make trash collection easier.
He’s asked residents to put up signs that read #SupportSanitation and suggested they put coolers of cold bottled water out for workers. The response has been “mind boggling,” Haigler said. People have been giving out water (and wooder ice!) to their sanitation workers, and he’s received more than 200 direct messages of support to his account, he said.
“It’s been showing me that the public really does care, they just didn’t know how to show it, they had to have someone show them how to care,” he said. “And as a result, morale among my coworkers is way up.”
McCarty-Skelton, the Streets Department spokesperson, said the office is aware of Haigler’s Instagram account.
“We appreciate Terrill bringing a human element to sanitation employees’ work efforts,” she said. “Our sanitation workers are on the front lines of this pandemic, and they continue to have one of the toughest jobs in the city.”
Since March 1, the Streets Department has bought and distributed thousands of masks, face shields, and gloves to sanitation workers, in addition to the standard reusable prick-proof gloves and boots it already issues, McCarty-Skeleton said. Full hazmat jumpsuits are available as needed, too, she said.
“As is the case with most essential service providers, the city is challenged with supply and delivery of this equipment due to high demand with other lifesaving priorities,” she said. “We continue to do everything we can to source and distribute PPE for our frontline staff.”
Spurred on by the support of his followers and the need for additional PPE equipment and cleaning supplies for the trucks he and his colleagues use, Haigler created a #SupportSanitation T-shirt campaign, which raised more than $8,700 in a week.
Some individuals have donated more than 500 masks after hearing about the project, and Kismet Bagels has offered to donate a portion of its proceeds for August to Haigler’s campaign.
One donor to the campaign, Ellen Owens, wrote: “The sanitation workers deserve protection against Covid and accolades for the massive amounts of work they are doing. Their jobs are already difficult; they need support from the city they support.”
Haigler said his main goal is to get a seat at the table “with the powers that be” to talk about hazard pay for city sanitation workers.
“It feels like for the first time, sanitation workers and the public are together. We’re all one big family and we all want the trash off the street,” he said. “This is what Philly is all about, brotherly love. We come together. It’s us versus the world.”
Here are some of Haigler’s tips for making your sanitation worker’s job easier:
If you have a large trash can, drill holes in the bottom of it so when it rains the water drains out and it makes it easier to lift the can.
If you have a lot of cardboard, tie it up with a string. “I don’t know about you, but it’s hard for me to pick up 50 loose pieces of cardboard at once,” Haigler said.
Don’t stuff a week’s worth of garbage into a dollar store bag, “because when I go to grab the string, it will rip,” he said.
“People always ask us if one full bag or five half bags are better. Five half bags are much easier to throw into the truck.”
“If your trash has been sitting around for three days, tidy it up because it helps us get the trash up faster.”