On Martin Luther King Day morning, as the temperatures dropped below 6 degrees Fahrenheit, Kenneth Hernandez was bundled in a black puffer coat outside of the Manida Street headquarters of Sanitation Salvage, the controversial Hunts Point trash hauler that shuttered in November.
Hernandez, 27, is a former driver for Salvage. His face fell as he recalled years of working for the hauler under similar freezing conditions.
“I never really thought about that, how they treated us,” he said. “We had to go out on days like this with no heater in the truck. As a driver, you were just stuck, sitting in the cold. They didn’t care.”
About 20 former Sanitation Salvage workers and members of Teamsters Local Union 813 held signs that said “Stop the War on Workers” and shouted, “Pay your workers, Sanitation Salvage.” They were demanding back pay they say the company owes them for promised vacation time and years of overtime that went ignored even as the hauler informally paid meager amounts to people who worked collecting trash for them off the books.
On the day of the protest, entrances to the building were boarded up. No company officials present at the protest.
It was especially relevant to protest the company on a day devoted to Martin Luther King Jr., said Chio Valerio, a campaign director for environment-focused labor alliance ALIGN. On the weekend King was assassinated, he was supporting the strike of sanitation workers in Memphis.
“And to this day, we’re still seeing the same violations, the same discriminations,” Valerio said at the protest.
Sanitation Salvage announced that it would be going out of business in November, following months of public pressure on the company and the city agency responsible for overseeing private trash haulers, the Business Integrity Commission (BIC). Pressure was first applied when the investigative journal ProPublica found that the company’s trucks caused fatalities, first running over an off-the-books worker helping the crew collect trash, and then last winter when a 72-year-old resident of John Adams Houses, Leon Clarke, was struck and killed by the same company driver while crossing Westchester Ave.
Months after the investigation, the BIC suspended Sanitation Salvage’s license in September, leaving the company’s employees in limbo for several weeks.
Hernandez said he found out about the suspension from a news article. He came into work the next day, and was told that he wasn’t allowed to work. And while he went unpaid until the vendor’s license was restored in October, he said the company told him to hold off on finding a new job and encouraged him to help lobby City Hall into putting its trucks back on the streets.
“They made us write letters,” Hernandez said.”We went with them to City Hall to try to fight. But when I asked about vacation they told me that the company wasn’t making any money so they couldn’t pay me.”
Hernandez said the company owes him thousands of dollars: in vacation time specified in his contract that was never paid out, in overtime that often went ignored because he was paid off the books, in the raises he never received during six years working for the company, and for the workers comp he says the company owes him for breaking his thumb on duty last year.
Sanitation Salvage did not immediately respond to a request for comment left on a phone message at their central office.
Valerio and Teamsters spokesman Alex Moore said they would be working to gather statements about back-pay like Hernandez’s, and take them to either the New York State Department of Labor or the Business Integrity Commission to force the company to pay up. The BIC declined to comment for this story.
Moore said he hopes that more exposure will push the carter to pay workers back on its own accord.
“Go look at one of the houses owned by the Squitieris (the politically influential family that owns Sanitation Salvage),” Moore said. “They have enough money to pay these guys. They just need to do the right thing.”