A day in the life of New York City sanitation workers who are essential to the city's workforce amidst the coronavirus pandemic

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSanitation workers have one of the most essential jobs in New York — here’s how they do it every morning in NYC.
  • To combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reduced the state’s workforce to only those who are “essential.”
  • Alongside healthcare workers and reporters, New York’s sanitation workers were deemed essential by the state.
  • We shadowed two sanitation workers in NYCone of the filthiest cities in the US – early one morning to see what the job was like.
  • These sanitation workers wake up at 3:30 a.m. and pick up trash from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • After five years on the job, the average salary for a sanitation worker is about $US77,300, and after 22 years, sanitation workers are eligible for pension, according to the New York City Department of Sanitation.
  • Sanitation workers must be very cautious when handling trash and the collection truck on New York City streets, but they also enjoy the simple pleasures of the job, like watching the city wake up each morning.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.


We arrived at the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) at 5:30 a.m. on a Thursday.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderThe New York City Department of Sanitation is located at 353 Spring St.

This is where sanitation workers meet each morning before their routes.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderThe garage at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Workers in different garages take roll call, where they get assigned the route for the day. Supervisors also make announcements.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderA 6 am roll call at the New York City Department of Sanitation begins with a few announcements.

DSNY divides up the entire city into 59 districts, which separates the five boroughs into zones for cleaning and garbage and recycling collection.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderKevin waits for Mike to drive the collection truck to the next street.

Source: DSNY


DSNY runs 7,400 truck routes a week across the city.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSeveral collection trucks in the garage at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Source: DSNY


Sanitation workers must get to their garage sites by a little before 6 a.m. Many of them wake up at 3 or 4 a.m. to get dressed and make it to their garage on time.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderEmployees gather for a 6 am roll call at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Source: DSNY


You must be 21-years-old when appointed to be a sanitation worker, but there’s no age cap so long as you can pass the physical exam.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderEmployees sit and listen during roll call at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Source: DSNY


Sanitation workers — both collectors and supervisors — wear different shades of dark green uniforms with a reflective vest on top.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderEmployees sit and listen during roll call at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Source: DSNY


Most sanitation workers wear sturdy shoes without steel toes, which can sever your foot if run over by a car.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderEmployees prepare for a 6 am roll call at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Source: DSNY


There are about 7,800 uniformed staff members within the sanitation department. It is the third-largest city agency after the fire and police departments.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderInside the operations office at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Source: DSNY


While we didn’t see any women at the garage, there are currently 268 female uniformed staff members.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderEmployees prepare for a 6 am roll call at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Source: DSNY


This includes Sanitation Workers, and ranking officers like Supervisors, Deputy Chiefs and above.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderEmployees prepare for their routes after roll call at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Source: DSNY


The two sanitation workers we followed for the day were Kevin Greenan and Mike Squiciari. Greenan had been on the job for about 20 years, and Squiciari for about 33 years.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderEmployees Kevin Greenan and Mike Squiciari prepare for their routes after roll call at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

The two don’t normally work together, but Squiciari’s usual partner was out for the day. Since they have seniority, the two get more flexibility to pick the routes and schedules they want.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderEmployees prepare for their routes after roll call at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

We began in the Spring Street Garage on the west side of Lower Manhattan, and our route included parts of Soho and Greenwich Village.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderWe were on the west side of Lower Manhattan.

We drove behind the garbage truck alongside DSNY chief Keith Mellis for safety reasons. Chief Mellis oversees all five boroughs and began with the department as a sanitation worker in Harlem 33 years ago.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderChief Mellis follows in an SUV behind a collection truck on a daily route.

At the time we left for the job, it was pitch black outside, but we saw the sunrise as the day went on. Chief Mellis said one thing he loves about sanitation work is watching New York wake up.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderChief Mellis follows in an SUV behind a collection truck on a daily route.

DSNY picks up the trash of residents, schools, and non-profits. Restaurants and businesses must pay for private trash collection.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari tosses garbage into the hopper.

The metal that breaks down and pushes trash to the back of the vehicle is called a “hopper.”

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderThe hopper in-motion on a collection truck.

Hoppers can be dangerous as they break down garbage quickly, and trash can quickly get sprayed outward.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderThe hopper on a collection truck.

So sanitation workers must stand to the side of the hopper as they load trash into the vehicle.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari tosses garbage into the hopper.

One sanitation worker in Brooklyn died after dumping trash that contained acid. The acid sprayed outward after it got sucked into the hopper and got on the sanitation worker’s skin.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan collects garbage on the side of the hopper.

Source: The New York Times


Sanitation workers must pass a civil service exam — which includes both a written and physical portion — before getting hired.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan and Squiciari work together on their route.

Squiciari, whose coworkers nicknamed him “Mikey Arms,” is a bodybuilder and trainer. He says part of what allowed him to stay on the job for 33 years was his physical fitness and time spent in the gym.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari discusses the challenging duties of a sanitation worker.

“If you plan on taking this job, try to be young and take care of your body,” Squiciari told Business Insider. “Eat healthy and exercise. That’s what I’ve been doing, and I’ve lasted 33 years doing this job in all different weather conditions. Thank God I feel great.”

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari (right) and Greenan (left) discuss the dangers of sanitation work.

Greenan, meanwhile, plans on retiring soon because he’ll be eligible for pension.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan stands on the side of the hopper as it crushes loads of trash.

Sanitation workers hired before 2012 are eligible for pension after 20 years of service. Sanitation Workers hired after are eligible for pension after 22 years of service.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan on his morning route in lower Manhattan.

Source: DSNY


This isn’t the only perk of the job. Squiciari and Greenan both find the early hours —which are from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. — to be pretty ideal for their lifestyles.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari and Greenan toss garbage into the hopper.

“I have two boys, and I was able to pick them up at school. I was probably the only father there,” Squiciari told Business Insider. “And I can go to the gym after work and I’m still home by 5 p.m.”

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari and Greenan work together on their morning route.

“Getting off at 2 o’clock in the summer, you can go to the beach,” Greenan told Business Insider.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan on his morning route in lower Manhattan.

“The only hard part is getting up in the morning. When my alarm clock goes off I wanna throw it out the window,” he continued.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan stands on the side of the hopper as it crushes loads of trash.

Greenan also enjoys the simple pleasures of the job. “I like to walk. A lot of guys get in the truck between each stop, but I just walk everywhere because I like it,” he told Insider.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan walks alongside the truck.

Greenan and Squiciari also get paid higher salaries because of their seniority.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari and Greenan collect garbage to toss in the hopper.

The entry-level salary for a sanitation worker is about $US37,600. It increases with time and after five years, the average salary is about $US77,300.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari collects trash on his morning route in lower Manhattan.

Source: DSNY


Chief Mellis and Squiciari had started with the sanitation department at the same time. They are two of just three members left from a start class of around 1,000 workers. Most workers leave after they can qualify for pension.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari and Chief Mellis discuss the job.

Source: DSNY


Squiciari, Greenan, and Chief Mellis say one of the best parts of being a sanitation worker is the camaraderie.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari (right), Greenan, and Chief Mellis discuss the dangers of sanitation work.

Sanitation workers spend a lot of time together, as shifts can sometimes be 12-hours long. During that time, they get to know each other like family, they said.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari and Chief Mellis greet each other with a hug.

Squiciari said he still keeps in contact with a few old sanitation workers who have since retired, and many of them do meet-ups or come back for retirement parties.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari collects garbage on the side of the hopper.

Another fun part of the job, they said, is getting to know the residents, supers, and store owners who live along their route. Greenan and Squiciari both recall watching kids on their routes grow up.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan tosses garbage into the hopper.

We saw Squiciari greet one of the supers who worked along the route.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari tosses garbage into the hopper.

Squiciari and Greenan confirmed rats greet them along the route too. Our least favourite part of the day was seeing the rats.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari and Greenan collect garbage to toss in the hopper.

They come out in early mornings and at nights, and if the area is restaurant-dense, entire families surround the garbage.

Robert Mecea/APRats swarm around a bag of garbage near a dumpster in New York City.

An important part of the job is keeping an eye out for bikers.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderKevin and Mike on their lower-Manhattan route.

Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg instated bike lanes in much of the city during his 2002-2013 tenure, sanitation workers have to pay extra attention to their blind spots so that they won’t run into bikers.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari drives a collection truck in lower Manhattan.

Source: DSNY


Increased technology has aided sanitation workers over the years. All current DSNY collection trucks and salt spreaders have GPS trackers, and many have cameras in the back to give drivers better visibility.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderThe interior of a collection truck in the garage at the New York City Department of Sanitation.

Source: DSNY


DSNY also operates one of the cleanest garbage collection fleets in the country.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderExhausts in the collection trucks make the route greener.

Source: DSNY, Waste Dive


DSNY reduced its use of unleaded fuel by nearly half since 2005. Today, the entire diesel fleet runs on biodiesel fuel.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderExhausts in the collection trucks make the route greener.

Source: DSNY


The amount of trash on the roads vary by month. May tends to be one of the busiest months, due to spring cleaning.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan stands on the side of the hopper as it crushes loads of trash.

Source: DSNY


And the summer tends to be heavier for trash collecting than the winter.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan collects trash on his morning route in lower Manhattan.

Source: DSNY


Monday and Tuesday have the most trucks on the road, as the sanitation department operates less on weekends.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan tosses garbage into the hopper.

Source: DSNY


In 20 years of sanitation work, Greenan said one thing stays the same.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari and Greenan work together on their morning route.

“Garbage never ends. All those baskets you saw me do — if you drive around right now, they’re probably half full already,” he told Business Insider.

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderSquiciari and Greenan collect garbage to toss in the hopper.

“But I don’t mind,” he says, “more work for me.”

Joey Hadden/Business InsiderGreenan dumps trash into the hopper during his morning route in lower Manhattan.

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