Sanitation Supervisor Renay Hardison, 57, knows she has the best job in the city. “You don’t get shot at, you don’t have to sit around with criminals and trash doesn’t talk back,” she said Feb. 4 at the department’s Canarsie garage known as Brooklyn North’s District 17.
After applying to as many city exams as she could, she started as a Sanitation Worker in 1999. Although she initially wanted to be a nurse, she soon realized she couldn’t stand the sight of blood, then took to working in male-dominated jobs, including as a Public Safety Officer at Brooklyn College.
An Offer She Couldn’t Refuse
One day, Ms. Hardison had a chance encounter with a Sanitation Worker in uniform at a fish market.
“He asked where I was working and how much I make. Then he goes, ‘How would you like to make $50,000?’ and I said ‘I’m sold,’” she said with a laugh.
But there was definitely an adjustment period, she admitted.
“My first week on the job, it was break time and one of the San Workers got a hero. He started eating with the gloves he picks up garbage with,” she said, making a disgusted face. “And you know what he said to me? ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it!’ and I’m thinking ‘No, I will never, ever get used to that.’”
Then there was the pain.
“My fingertips the first week were horrible. It felt like my whole hand was there but my fingertips belonged to somebody else. They were totally sore,” Ms. Hardison said.
Getting used to the pests and vermin wasn’t great either, said San Worker Stacy Daley, 41, who has been on the job since 2015.
‘You Freak Out’
“When you first start, you freak the hell out. The scariest part to me was seeing a bunch of roaches come out of a garbage bag—I ran down the block, I’m not gonna lie,” she said while driving a truncated route near East Flatbush’s Tilden Ave.
What didn’t help in her case was that she had “a little bit of OCD,” or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
“My friend was like ‘How are you gonna have that job?’ But I figured I could help clean the city, because New York City is pretty dirty,” Ms. Daley said.
After working as an accounting clerk in the U.S. Marines, driving for Greyhound and becoming a fitness instructor (which she still does on the side), Ms. Daley said she knew she wanted a job with the city; just not as a Correction Officer, which was her parents' occupation.
The Sanitation Department hired the first two female San Workers, Ann Gloria Pabon and Carlen Sanderson, in 1986. Although there are 271 female uniformed Sanitation employees (a bit more than 3 percent of the department’s 7,863 uniformed workers), they have managed to step into the field more than in some other city jobs that were typically male-dominated, including in the Fire Department, where just 1 percent of Firefighters are female.
A Boisterous Family
District 17 has four uniformed women working among its 123 employees, including Ms. Daley. The garage has a laid-back feel: one where San Workers tease each other, in a way not unlike members of a large family who sometimes annoy one another. And on that day at least, it smelled more like laundry detergent than garbage.
The “mother” of the garage is Monique Thomas-Drigo, 41, who has been the Superintendent for District 17 for two-and-a-half years and one of “New York’s Strongest” for 14. After she studied accounting and business at Hofstra University, her friend who was already a San Worker convinced her to take the Sanitation exam.
The two career paths were worlds apart, but Ms. Thomas-Drigo found that “sitting in the office all day was not me.” And the thought of driving a large garbage truck wasn’t intimidating to her because she came from a family of truckers—growing up, her father drove a gas-tanker.
Ms. Thomas-Drigo said that she loved to see people’s reactions to her on the street.
“It was great because you get that head-turn like, ‘That’s a woman picking up garbage.’ They’re like ‘you’re not supposed to be doing that.’ Well, why not?,” she said.
It’s obvious that some of that pride was because they were working a job that was extremely sought after: more than 90,000 people took the last Sanitation exam, which was administered in 2015.
Women ‘Shout Us Out’
Tia Straker, who was on the verge of turning 31 and has been on the job for three years, said that women especially loved to see female San Workers on the job. “They shout us out; they pull their windows down,” she said after switching at the wheel with Ms. Daley, her partner that day.
A self-described “girly-girl” with manicured nails, Ms. Straker worked as a Bus Operator, but never felt like the job clicked for her.
“When you’re on the bus, yeah, you have passengers but you’re not really allowed to talk to them. But on a garbage truck, you learn about people,” she said.
Her most-recent job was taking care of individuals with special needs, but she began to feel that path wouldn’t work for a long-term career, which especially concerned her because she had a young son. Ms. Straker took as many city exams as she could, then got offers from the Sanitation Department and the state Department of Motor Vehicles on the same day.
“I was thinking, ‘well, DMV is 9 to 5,’ but everybody told me that Sanitation was a great experience. It was the best decision I ever made,” she said.
Ms. Hardison believed that there was a misconception of what it meant to work in Sanitation. “When you think of Sanitation, you think ‘dirty and nasty.’ [People] don’t know the different assignments you can have behind a desk—you can come on this job and never pick up garbage,” she said, highlighting those assigned to the Operations Assistance Unit, which works to make the Department’s operations more-efficient. “There’s so many options and tours on this job that you can make a family life work.”
‘A Little Diplomacy’
As a Supervisor, part of her job involves answering 311 calls, surveying the streets for damaged wastebaskets, and giving out summonses.
“You try to have a little diplomacy when dealing with the public because you don’t know what’s on people’s minds,” she said, noting that she enjoyed being able to help her colleagues and the public more frequently in her higher rank.
Ms. Straker, who works at the District 16 garage located nearby in East New York, said that she helps train new San Workers and has noticed more women on the job over the past few years. “My class only had like four women in it. But the classes coming through have like 10. It’s exciting,” she said.
Some of those female trainees asked for advice, to which she had one answer: you can’t be soft.
“I think that the women who get here have the heart to do this,” Ms. Daley added. “We know we have to pick up garbage and dead s---.”
Not Without Dangers
The job also has its dangerous moments. Ms. Hardison recalled when one of her workers was pricked with a needle 17 years ago and they feared he could possibly contract HIV.
While driving, Ms. Daley explained the importance of using the truck to shield her partner as he or she crossed the street, to prevent them from being hit by a car. Every morning, Ms. Thomas-Drigo reminded her team to watch out for their colleagues right before handing them their assigned routes.
Although the women said that most men on the job were welcoming and taught them tricks of the trade (Ms. Daley noted that when she worked in a heavily rat-infested section of the Bronx, her colleagues taught her to tuck her pant legs in her boots so critters couldn’t crawl inside), a few were hesitant at first.
“Some men go, ‘Oh, I gotta carry her, I gotta do her job for her `cause she’s a female.’ Then they watch you and realize you can carry yourself,” Ms. Straker said.
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