The stay-at-home order means most of us are safe indoors, where we’re generating a lot more trash and recycling. This increase in residential waste is something Tiffany "TJ" Burger has experienced up close. She drives a recycling truck for Waste Management in Seattle.
Burger is one of just two women out of 177 drivers for Teamsters locals 117 and 174, who report for work at the Waste Management jobsite in Seattle. She empties recycling bins from dozens of downtown businesses every day, during a shift that starts at 3 a.m.
For Burger, that means getting up before 2 a.m., so she can make the drive from her house in Northeast Tacoma and still have a little extra time to get ready.
"Change into my uniform, put my boots on and kind of just get into my — my work zone, is what I call it,” Burger said. “Throw on some AC/DC and just get ready to go."
“Thunderstruck” is her song of choice, in case you wondered. She navigates narrow alleyways with multiple cameras to help her position the truck correctly. Sometimes she has to get out and roll a dumpster or recycle bin into the right place.
BACK TO WORK AFTER COVID-19
This week, Burger returned to work after 16 days out, because of the coronavirus. She was assigned to a new route through West Seattle and Rainier Valley, with more residential pickups than usual.
“I’m doing a lot of the apartments,” she said, speaking by cellphone from her truck. “So, I’m seeing a lot of recycling.”
It’s physically demanding work, which is normally no problem for her. But Burger is more easily exhausted now. She and her partner got COVID-19 from their roommate. He was exposed to a known case at his work, Burger says, and brought the virus home.
Burger had all kinds of telling symptoms, such as losing her sense of taste and smell. But she’s 31 and didn’t meet the criteria to get tested. Her employer had implored staff to stay home if they got sick, and her doctors advised her to self-quarantine for two weeks.
There are all sorts of reasons to wish for that test to confirm the diagnosis. But, for Burger, it was an economic issue.
NO TEST, NO CRISIS PAY?
Without a positive test, she was initially told that she wasn’t eligible for crisis pay. She worked it out eventually, by getting a doctor’s note indicating she had all the symptoms, just not the test to prove it. She got her crisis pay: full wages for two 40-hour weeks. But it still stings. She pins the blame mostly on the lack of testing.
“You know the state said, ‘hey, you guys are essential, we need you.' OK, well essential, means we’re out there exposing ourselves possibly to this virus, but we can’t even have a test — which I think is really not fair,” she said.
And Burger says sometimes, her work can get pretty gnarly. Most of her shift is done when it’s pitch dark outside. She sees a lot of discarded needles.
“I have to really be careful. I have a headlamp that I wear,” she said. “You know, there is urine on the ground. There's feces sometimes that's splattered across the wall. I mean, it's just really disgusting. And so I have to be careful with everything that I do. But I mean, I change out my gloves. I constantly sanitize my hands."
Still, she says she actually feels blessed to be able to do this work. She likes driving a big truck and seeing the city as it wakes up in the earliest hours of the day. It’s secure work that offers good pay and benefits.
But there’s a new problem now. It’s about finding a bathroom during her eight- to 13-hour shifts. Normally, businesses have no problem letting her take a quick pit stop. Now, most of them are closed to the public.
“Even the ones that are open, it’s kind of like, employees only, using the facilities," she said. "And I understand why. But I’m out here being an essential worker. We’re kind of all in this together. You know, come on man — I have my uniform on, you know I’m not just some random person off the street.”
NAVIGATING A RESTROOM SHORTAGE
Her employer is sympathetic. They gave her an app to help locate bathrooms along her route and told her not to hesitate to come back to the base early if she needs to.
She found a Safeway on her old route that allows delivery and pickup drivers to use the bathrooms along with employees — a welcome relief in more ways than one. But she says during her first shift back on the job this week, a convenience store clerk turned her away when she asked to use the bathroom.
“He told me if I was a cop or drove an ambulance or … a medic, that I could have used the bathroom,” Burger said.
She could hardly believe it: “I said, ‘are you serious?' ... I'm out here picking up your trash, dude!'”
Burger laughs as she tells the story. But she’s serious in her plea to local businesses to recognize the needs of drivers like her, who are providing essential services.
And most of all, she wishes there was better information about the virus. She says she still doesn’t have her sense of taste or smell back. The doctors told her that could take a month.
“I’m concerned being out here because there’s not a lot of info about the virus. I’m not sure if once you have it, if you can get it again or you can’t get it again. Or you could be a host of it and could be out here giving it to people and you know, be non-symptomatic,” Burger said. “So, I’m kind of worried. Not too much for myself, but other people.”
She’s being extra careful, wearing an N-95 mask whenever she’s near other people on the job. All the company’s vehicles are thoroughly disinfected after each shift, since they can be shared by multiple drivers. And Burger says her employer has assured her that if she comes down with the virus again, she will be eligible for a second round of crisis pay.
UPDATE, April 16, 10 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Tiffany Burger's name.