Santa Clara’s Annual Cleanup Campaign is wrapping up, but there’s contention over whether the campaign was safe to conduct in the first place.
Union leaders say given the breadth of what’s thrown out during the cleanup, the scavengers that pick through the piles of trash, and the current issues with COVID-19, this year’s event was especially hazardous. Leaders say the city didn’t do all it could to ensure employee safety.
The city says it followed proper procedure. It consulted with Santa Clara County Public Health and worked with the Environmental Health Department throughout the campaign. But union leaders say, that’s not what they were told.
“We never could get any answers from them, other than, they said it’s okay and the trash collection is an essential service,” said Gary Ferraris, the President of the City of Santa Clara Chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “I agree that the trash collection as Mission Trail or Recology would do it, would be low to medium risk…However, this campaign is not quite that same beast.”
Ferraris says not only were health concerns increased this year, but the number of city employees at risk was increased as well. Employees who had not worked on the campaign in years past were told they would have to work this year, filling roles that were normally filled by contractors. He believes the city was trying to save budget money.
The city says that’s not true; the changes were due to COVID-19.
“The city did hire several contract employees to assist with this effort this year, which is consistent with prior years,” said Lenka Wright, Santa Clara Director of Communications. “The utilization of additional contracting services was carefully reviewed against current COVID protocols and the combination of social distancing requirements, inability to meet the city’s vehicle insurance requirements and city employee concerns were the primary factors in the decision to not utilize the contractors this year.”
The annual cleanup campaign finished on Sept. 4. AFSCME Business Agent for Council 57, Carol McEwan, says the city did not do everything it could to protect employees.
McEwan says employees were not being tested for COVID-19, but instead told to arrange for testing themselves. The city says it encouraged employees to get tested and sponsored free testing sites at libraries.
McEwan also points out that when the air quality was especially bad on Aug. 26 because of the wildfires, the city cancelled outdoor programs, but still sent employees out to conduct cleanup efforts.
“The only consideration for the health of employees working outdoors is to allow for the use of sick leave if the air quality is bothersome,” said McEwan.
The city says employees had appropriate PPE including N95 respirator masks.
“The type of work was modified so it was not strenuous; and management conducted a series of safety briefings, which included the Heat Illness Prevention Plan,” said Wright. “The city closely monitored the weather conditions throughout the day and allowed employees to leave their shift for the remainder of the day, if they expressed any health concerns.”
Both Ferraris and McEwan say given all of the issues, they feel like the city is placing budgetary demands ahead of employee safety.
“We kind of feel like they’re looking at this from a budgetary standpoint…They were real quick to cancel the citywide garage sale…but that has nothing to do with any budgetary issues,” said Ferraris. “In our opinion, the reason they’re pushing this particular project so hard is in the past, they hire temporary staffing to do the groundwork…This year, they’re using all city employees, thereby taking them off of the general fund budget, and then putting them onto this special budget.”
“While the COVID-19 pandemic has and continues to negatively impact the City budget, that has not had any direct impact on the safety of our employees,” said Wright. “The safety of our employees is a top priority. The city has taken many steps to ensure the safety of our employees, and adheres to all local and state requirements.”