While much of New York was staying home in March, sanitation workers were driving through eerily empty streets to keep picking up the city's waste in the epicenter of a pandemic.
One reason why New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY) workers could continue their essential job was the Sanitation Foundation. Formerly called the Foundation for New York’s Strongest, the nonprofit launched four years ago to aid DSNY employees in ways their government employer sometimes can't.
So far, 2020 has tested that goal. As the coronavirus spread and people stayed at home, commercial waste employees serving New York businesses lost work. Meanwhile, residential waste volumes skyrocketed in multiple areas, burdening DSNY employees with more material. Over 720 DSNY workers have tested positive for COVID-19, but the true number is likely even higher based on how many were out sick in the early days. At least eight DSNY workers have died due to the virus.
In response, the foundation launched the COVID-19 DSNY Emergency Fund to provide materials and the encouragement employees needed to work.
“This COVID fund for the workforce obviously wasn't part of our planned programming,” said Julie Raskin, executive director of the Sanitation Foundation. “But part of the reason we exist is so that we can be more nimble than the government entity and we can kind of seize opportunities and also rise to challenges.”
The pandemic also kicked off a scramble for appropriate protective gear. “You can probably imagine how procurement works for the agencies, and it's often slower than we can get in the private market,” Raskin said. Donations to the COVID fund allowed the foundation to acquire equipment as fast as possible. A local gin distillery that pivoted to making hand sanitizer gave gallons of the product. Some of the $70,000 the foundation raised bought reusable masks made with deadstock fabric by a family-owned New York company (though the city has since supplied disposable surgical masks). Combined with in-kind donations, the foundation estimates raising more than $525,000.
The foundation partnered with restaurants and community groups to provide hot breakfasts at 7:30 every morning, when a shift rotation was wrapping up. The meal provided an alternative when businesses that employees normally went to were closed, Raskin said.
As workers became ill, the foundation also put employees in touch with outside help from groups such as the Solid Waste Association of North America. An estimated 130 DSNY employees received money through its Sanitation Workers Support Fund, which CEO David Biderman said is "far more than any other company or agency."
“This reflects how, sadly, New York City was ground zero for COVID-19 earlier this year. We would not have been able to provide this economic support without the Sanitation Foundation’s assistance, and I want to thank Julie Raskin in particular for her great work," said Biderman.
Feedback from DSNY workers determined how the foundation approached their aid. Charlie Eisenbach, an advisory board member who has been a sanitation worker for over 20 years, provided input on what his colleagues were saying. Staff also reached out directly to the foundation through Facebook to share their thoughts.
As the pandemic wore on, financial issues appeared. The city cut $106 million from DSNY's 2021 budget, a step that included eliminating curbside compost collection. About 70 of the 150 city drop-off compost sites have reopened, but the foundation would like to put together the $50,000 or so needed per site to open more.
The organization is also still pursuing the city's broader goal of "zero waste" by 2030 with pandemic-appropriate modifications. Zero Waste Workshops are online — a pivot that boosted attendance, Raskin said. Refashion Week, where stylists use thrifted clothing, is going digital in February. The group has also hosted programming on equity in the sustainability movement amid this year's focus on racial issues. In addition, the organization also revamped its branding this year and recently put on a virtual art show displaying employees’ work.
The health crisis and its consequences will also remain an ongoing focus for the Sanitation Foundation. The group now plans to use money left in the COVID-19 fund for a statue commemorating employees who lost their lives to the virus.