Dozens of New Orleans sanitation works who went on strike to protest their low pay and hazardous work conditions amid the COVID-19 pandemic were fired last week.
At least 20 workers staged a protest on the morning of May 5, demanding higher wages and better safety protocols.
Due to the immense risks involved in their work, they also demanded hazard pay. The workers known as “hoppers’ are exposed to dangerous health risks due to the constant handling of trash and they say they are not given proper protective equipment.
The workers were employer, Metro Disposal, responded to their demands by firing several of the striking workers and using prison laborers to do their jobs.
Gregory Woods, one of the sanitation workers who staged the protest, told local reporters that the issues with the work conditions have been going on for a long time but the company’s poor response to the coronavirus pandemic was the final straw.
“We are out here dealing with toxic waste every day,” Woods told WDSU. “They always rush us on the clock.”
The workers, who pick up trash from 4 am to 4 pm sometimes, also demanded a pay increase from their $10.25 an hour to $15 an hour.
Woods addressed the overall poor working conditions at Metro Disposal: “The trucks need to be fixed. They have hydraulic fluid leaking on us. We get paid late. Everything is just bad here.”
He also described the worsening working conditions during the time of the pandemic. “Out there, it’s more piles we have to pick up. The cans are heavier, and it’s a hazard out there, dealing with that. Our job,” Woods continued, “is to keep the city clean. Give us better equipment and pay us better, because the hours are so long and it’s hot out here. And we’re dealing with the corona now.”
Metro Services Group has replaced the workers by hiring several prison inmates from nearby Livingston Parish to replace striking workers. According to Louisiana labor laws, prisoners convicted of non-violent crime can be hired as sanitation workers at only 13 percent of the usual hourly wage of $10.25, essentially slave wages.
Facing public out lash over its strikebreaking operation, Metro issued the following statement: “Metro Services Group has long been an advocate of helping persons who had been incarcerated return to society in a meaningful and productive way. Metro makes no apologies for this policy as a core element of our commitment to being good corporate citizens.”
When asked about the use of inmates, Woods told local reporters: “They are really trying to use those dudes to do our job, and they’re paying them way less than they were paying us. They’re saving money, that’s all they are doing.”