A Philly Trashman on Picking Up Your Garbage in the Middle of a Pandemic

Terrill Haigler, best known as @_yafavtrashman on Instagram, talks about aggressive rodents, becoming the public face of sanitation workers, and three simple things you can do to help his colleagues speed up trash collection.

Philly trashman Terrill Haigler, aka @_yafavtrashman on Instagram. Photos courtesy Terrill Haigler.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, trash collection has been a touch-and-go affair. With so many of us sheltering in place, residential trash has been way up, putting stress and strain on the city’s hardworking sanitation employees. And then there’s the ever-present threat of infection. In the past few weeks, the summer heat intensified, storms stymied crews, and the city resumed weekly recycling pickups, all of which has contributed to, um, very noticeable collection delays.

The sanitation workers union, AFSCME Local 427, has claimed that workers have been provided with inadequate PPE (a claim the city rejects) and is asking for hazard pay due to what it says is a high number of COVID-19 infections in its ranks. In mid June, a Philly sanitation worker named Terrill Haigler, 30, of North Philly, started an Instagram account called @_yafavtrashman through which he has revealed to the public what life as a sanitation worker is like right now and encouraged them to show support for beleaguered trash crews. He is also selling t-shirts emblazoned with his @_yafavtrashman logo to raise funds for the purchase of PPE. We caught up with Haigler on the phone last week to talk about his trash pet peeves, how residents can help him and his colleagues do their jobs more efficiently, and the best cold treat he’s received on his route.

According to both your union head and the deputy streets commissioner, sanitation workers have been working pretty much nonstop — long hours and no days off during a weeks-long heat wave — trying to play catch-up. How do you keep your spirits up?
Honestly, the support from the public since I started the Instagram page has really brought morale way up. I asked the public to put signs up with hashtags that say #supportsanitation, and to give out cold water and Gatorade, and to just say “Thank you” and wave “Hi!” And the response was amazing. I get messages and DMs all the time. My co-workers send pictures like, “Hey, we found another sign in West Philly!” “Hey, we saw a sign in Germantown!” Just to know that the public is behind us really makes it a little bit easier to get up, come to work, and hustle through the day and get as much trash up as we can.

I feel like in the past few weeks, we’ve seen issues with trash pickup really intensify. Walk me through why that’s happened.
There’s a couple of things. We had that huge rainstorm on that Friday that stalled us for almost two hours. We have people who tested positive and are self-quarantined, so we’re short-staffed. And then the amount of trash is way up because residents are home now. I know some people who have worked 17, 18 days straight. People’s bodies are breaking down. People are tired. People need mental health days, you know.

So something as seemingly small as a two-hour rain delay can have a real impact?
When you’re talking about rain, yes, because you get in the truck and you wait it out. But also, now all the trash is wet, all the recyclables are wet, so it takes more time to get it up, because it’s not like you can grab a box and go. You gotta grab the box from the bottom so the bottles don’t fall all out. Then you have recycling cans that have no holes in the bottom that have been rained on for two hours, adding an extra 75 pounds of water to the can. It’s impeding the process.

It’s fascinating getting a window into the lives of sanitation workers through your Instagram. What prompted you to start it?
Before I became a trashman, I really didn’t realize how hard it is and the beating that your body takes — and the beating that you take mentally and even emotionally. My background is theater, so I have always had an expressive personality. I was a student at Freedom Theater on Broad and Master for almost 20 years. I graduated from the Creative and Performing Arts High School in South Philly. I was a dance major. I joined a dance company, danced with them for a while. I love theater. But when I became a trashman, people would say, “Oh, you’re just a trashman. You just pick up trash and throw it in the truck.” I’m like, “You think that’s all I do?” I was like, man, I’m gonna put up this Instagram, and be authentic and just tell people what it is. Because most people, they put their trash in a can, go to work, and by the time they come home, the trash is gone. But, they don’t really know what it takes to just get that can up off the block on time.

What’s a major misconception people have about the job?
That we just pick up the bags and go. You don’t know what’s in that bag. I don’t want to get too graphic, but there have been times I’ve thrown a bag in the truck, I’ve compressed it, and there’s human feces in it. Who wants to deal with that? We really are cleaning the whole entire city, you know? One thing I wish people knew: If you put cardboard out and it’s going to rain, go get the cardboard — don’t let it sit out in the rain. That’s the worst thing about my job, wet cardboard. People have bottles in those cardboard cases, they get wet, and when you go to pick them up, all 12 beer bottles fall out.

What’s the best thing you’ve gotten in one of the coolers that people have been leaving out for you? Anything stronger than water?
Ha ha! No. We’re not actually allowed to take that, so I would never take it. I think the best thing I’ve got is a water ice. I got one of those Lindy’s cups from the supermarket. This lady, she gave us three of them, for me, my partner and the driver.

The two big things you and your colleagues are fighting for are PPE and hazard pay. The city says it’s providing PPE, but clearly your colleagues don’t think it’s adequate. What aren’t you getting that you wish you were getting?
We would like puncture-proof gloves, not slice-proof. There’s a difference. Slice-proof gloves protect you from everything coming across the glove. Puncture-proof protects you from anything coming right at the gloves. My area, I have Frankford, so I go past Kensington and Allegheny. If you know anything about Philly, you know that’s a bad area to be picking up trash. I have a few co-workers who were stuck by needles. And also, the masks. Let me make this clear: I love my job. I appreciate my job. And I know that no one planned for this pandemic to last this long. It’s just that we would love to work in KN95 masks, because they don’t fog up that much, so we can all wear glasses. They’re just easy to work in. The city has given us the head guards with the plastic shields. Those are just difficult to work in. I know the city is trying to find something that really works for both sides, and I appreciate them trying.

In terms of hazard pay, what are you guys looking for?
Honestly, just a little extra boost in pay. We are really putting our lives on the line. I just posted something on how sanitation doesn’t even qualify for the hazardous pay grants Governor Wolf came out with. Sanitation is not on the list of eligible jobs. So, am I missing something? Is sanitation not essential? And his plan is a $3-per-hour raise for a certain amount of time so that it adds up to $1,200 over 10 weeks or something. I mean, we could even start there. A lot of us are really putting our lives on the line. There is no information available to us that says, “Hey, three houses on this block have tested positive for COVID.” We have to take all the trash. Then you have rodent-infested neighborhoods. Imagine picking up a bag and a rodent jumping out at you.

My understanding is the rats are behaving differently because there’s less restaurant trash.
Exactly. They are aggressive. I can tell you a story. I usually kick a bag to see if there’s anything in there, because when you kick the bag, the rats scurry. But they’re not running anymore, because they’re like, We need food. I haven’t been with a guy that’s been bitten, but I have had co-workers who picked up a bag and possums were in the trash can. Like, what do you do at that moment?

Ha! Me, I’d just leave the can, but…
But then you have the resident come out and want to call 311, like “They didn’t take my trash!”

Talk to me about how all the extra trash impacts an individual crew. I assume trucks fill up more quickly.
I’ll give you a quick scenario. Say that pre-COVID, 10 double-sided blocks would fill the truck up, right? So that’s about two hours, two and a half hours of work. During COVID, maybe four and a half blocks fill up a truck because of the increase. So we’re not getting to as many blocks as we used to, because it’s so heavy. And then it’s more time on each block. Where one block would take you 30 minutes, 35 minutes, blocks are taking almost an hour, an hour and a half. And now because everybody’s home, they clean their basements out. They’ve wanted to do this for 20 years. They’re cleaning their attics out; they’re getting their porches remodeled. Man, I came across a few boxes full of ESPN Magazines the other day … a box of those, that’s almost 100 pounds.

You’ve started selling these great shirts to raise money for PPE. How many have you sold, and what is your goal?
I’ve sold 910 shirts since last Wednesday, when I started the campaign. My goal is 2,000 shirts.

Terrill Haigler is selling these t-shirts to raise money for PPE for Philadelphia sanitation workers.

In addition to buying shirts and donating money, how else can people support sanitation workers?
The water, the signs, the Gatorade, there’s the Cash app or the Venmo, which is just yafavtrashman on both, buying a t-shirt. I’ve had residents go to BJs and buy four cases of water. I’ve been telling people, if you DM me your zip code, I’ll DM you the address of the closest yard to you, and you can literally just drop it off at the yard. And if you can’t do that, a simple phone call, an email or a letter to City Council, to the Mayor, to the powers that be, influencers, just to bring awareness to the fact that sanitation workers need hazardous pay and PPE.

What would make your job easier?
One, drilling holes in the bottoms of trash cans to let the rain out. Two: tying and compressing boxes. People just kind of throw them out there, then the wind blows and, well, you try picking up 50 loose pieces of cardboard. Three: Buy good-quality bags. I know we’re in COVID right now and the economy is the way it is, but people take dollar-store bags and stuff three weeks’ worth of leftover food in there, and as soon as you pick the bag up, you have food and everything everywhere. People always ask, “Would you rather have a bag that’s full and heavy, or would you rather have five half bags?” The answer is five half bags. I’ll throw a half bag five times vs. taking one 200-pound bag that’s going to take me 20 minutes to get in the truck.

You have become a public face for sanitation workers. You’re not just posting content; you’re doing customer service, asking people to let you know if their trash hasn’t been picked up. Does that extra responsibility weigh on you?
Honestly, I love it. My mother always had a saying with me: “When you know better, you do better.” So I feel like the more information I give, the more questions I answer, the more you guys can help us. You know how they say you have to curve the pandemic? You help us curve this trash, because if you are now drilling holes in your cans and bagging up everything, we are going around the block faster.