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Long Hours, Low Pay Led to Sanitation Worker Strike In New Orleans, Workers Reportedly Replaced with Inmates on Work Release Programs

A group of disgruntled sanitation workers claimed they were fired for going on strike for better pay and protective equipment.

About a dozen New Orleans-area workers began striking on May 5 for better work conditions, according to New Orleans newspaper The Times-Picayune. The workers, locally known as “hoppers” for their practice of jumping on and off garbage trucks as they empty bins, pick up trash for the city but are employed by PeopleReady, a third-party staffing company that provides labor to a private contractor that has a sanitation services contract with the city. Since the workers are not employed directly by the government of New Orleans, they have no means of securing a collective bargaining agreement with the city.

A group of sanitation workers protest outside of a waste management facility in New Orleans. The workers are demanding a raise, hazard pay and consistent access to personal protective equipment. (Photo: WDSU screenshot)

The workers believe their pay should be raised to $15 per hour plus $150 per week in hazard pay. They also want consistent distribution of gloves, masks and other personal protective equipment to shield them from COVID-19.

“We feel like we’re putting our health at risk,” Jerry Simon, one of the strikers, told The Times-Picayune. “Every time we go out there, we could catch the virus.”

Gregory Woods, another worker, told WDSU they get paid late and work long hours.

“We out here dealing with toxic waste every day,” Woods said. “They always rush us on the clock.”

He also revealed the “bad” conditions started before the pandemic.

“The trucks need to be fixed. They have hydraulic fluid leaking on us,” he added. “We deal with this every day, six days a week.”

The group has been protesting outside of the New Orleans East headquarters of Metro Service Group, a waste management company that has a $10.7 million contract with the city to perform trash collection for a large section of New Orleans. (Another provide company also has a sanitation services contract with the city.) Many of them were carrying signs that read “I am a man,” echoing signs carried during the Memphis sanitation worker strikes in 1968. The Memphis strike was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last project before his assassination.

Simon claims the strikers were terminated a day after the protest began and replaced with inmates on work release. The prisoners only make $9.25 per hour, and up to 64 percent of their income could be seized by the state.

Hootie Lockhart, manager of Lock5, the company that contracts the inmates, insisted he had no clue his workers were scabs stepping into a labor dispute. He told The Times-Picayune the company ended the arrangement.

“I did not know that there was a strike going on. That was never relayed to us,” he said. “We won’t be back. Not as long as there’s a labor issue.”

The office of New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell also passed the buck.

“Metro is responsible for providing workers with the necessary items for their safety. This would include masks, gloves, etc,” the mayor said in a statement.

Both Metro Service and PeopleReady claim the workers were not fired and could return to work whenever they wanted. Metro also defended the use of inmate labor.

“We’d like to add that, while hoppers went on strike and while we were unable to secure a regular stream of private sector workers to fill their spots during their strike, we are pleased to be able to provide work-release-approved inmates with meaningful work at a good wage so that they can more easily transition back into society,” a company spokesman told the New Orleans newspaper. The company also called the strikers’ claims there isn’t enough personal protective equipment “false.”

The workers want to return to their trucks but only if their demands are met.

“We’re out here. We’re doing our job. We take pride in our work,” striker Harold Peters told 4WWL. “Actually, we can’t wait to get back to work. We just want to be compensated.”

“We ain’t working until we see something. We need to see progress,” Woods told WWLTV. “Something’s gotta happen, so we’re not moving.”

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