This story was originally published by ProPublica.
On its face, the agenda for the Business Integrity Commission’s public hearing on Monday seemed uncontroversial enough: The agency that oversees New York City’s private garbage industry wanted to adopt new safety measures requiring trash companies to regularly report accidents, traffic violations and license suspensions involving their truck drivers.
Turns out, the measures struck the private trash haulers as too much. Testifying before the BIC, industry members called the measures “onerous.” They said they were suspicious about what the oversight body would do with the information, although they did not spell out what they feared. They even sought to question what, exactly, constituted a “crash” worth reporting.
“I start with the definition of crash in the proposed regulations,” Thomas Toscano, chief executive officer of Mr. T Carting, said. “In a highly populated area with millions of parked cars and over 100,000 customers picked up nightly, small property damage incidents are bound to happen. Cars suffer minor damages and carters pay to resolve these issues many times without going through insurance.”
Toscano said that carters should only have to report crashes that result in over $5,000 of property damage or an injury. Reporting every accident, he said, would actually lead to less safe conditions — burying the agency in paperwork that would hobble its efforts to tackle the more serious dangers in the industry.
The BIC and the trash companies it monitors have long tussled over how much regulation was too much. The BIC’s latest measures come after a number of fatal crashes and reporting by ProPublica raising questions about how successfully the agency has been dealing with safety issues afflicting the industry. When the BIC recently suspended the license of Sanitation Salvage, a major hauler based in the Bronx involved in two fatal crashes, one of them killing an off-the-books worker, in the last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio hailed the action.
“This company has demonstrated time and time again that they value profit over the lives of New Yorkers and the well-being of their workers,” de Blasio said in a statement.
Several elected officials and advocates testified on Monday in support of the BIC’s new measures, saying the safety requirements were necessary and overdue. But they expressed concerns over how rigorously the agency would enforce the new regulations given its track record.
Companies are already required to register all employees with the BIC, yet the practice of employing unreported, off-the-books workers is widespread in the city’s private sanitation industry, according to a 2016 report by the de Blasio administration.
Monday’s hearing came as the BIC was engaged in its latest legal combat with Sanitation Salvage. Lawyers for Sanitation Salvage have asked a state judge to lift the company’s suspension, saying it was unfairly singled out for punishment by the BIC in an industry where the safety records of other companies were similar or worse.
In a hearing in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on Tuesday, attorneys for the city and the company said they were negotiating the terms of the installation of a monitor to oversee Sanitation Salvage’s operations, and both sides expected that the company’s suspension would be lifted soon.
Responding to calls from politicians and advocates to revoke the company’s license, Sanitation Salvage issued a statement in May defending its conduct: “Our operation is predicated upon three important principles: 1) safety, first and foremost; 2) fulfilling a crucial need for our customers and the city; and 3) being a good neighbor. A complete review of our record and operation will show that we live by these principles and a revocation of our ability to do business is unwarranted.”
In its suspension of Sanitation Salvage’s license in August, the BIC concluded that the company had regularly failed to register employees with the agency, including a large number of its truck drivers.
“BIC’s investigation of Sanitation Salvage revealed regular, systemic failures by the company to disclose employees, and yet this modus operandi went on for years without repercussion,” Melissa Iachan, a senior staff attorney at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, said at the hearing. Saying that off-the-books employment makes workers especially vulnerable to wage theft, exploitation and dangerous conditions because of a lack of safety training, Iachan argued that the BIC’s proposed rules should include even more reporting requirements for companies, such as the regular submission of employee time sheets and payroll information.
Antonio Reynoso, who is chairman of the City Council’s Sanitation Committee and who attended the hearing, said that any regulations, new or existing, are only meaningful to the extent they are enforced.
“Time and time again we find that companies have simply disregarded BIC’s existing reporting requirements without suffering even minor consequences,” Reynoso said. “This is highly disturbing when we consider that employee registration is a critical component of BIC’s core mission: ensuring that members of organized crime are not active in the industry.”
At the hearing, Reynoso joined advocates in calling for comprehensive reform of the private sanitation industry by dividing the city into collection zones — a proposed overhaul supported by the de Blasio administration. Under zoning, supporters argue that the city would have more leverage to force companies to meet safety, labor and environmental benchmarks.
“This will be a first step in expanding our limited toolbox for addressing safety issues in the trade waste industry,” Salvador Arrona, director of policy at BIC, wrote in an email. “Next steps include pursuing legislation to empower BIC to do even more with regards to safety.”
Jose Maldonado, an official with New Yorkers for Responsible Waste Management, an industry group, said he supported increased attention to safety, but he and his organization have lobbied against zoning, and he said on Monday that he feared the issue of safety was being “politicized and weaponized” by those pushing the zoning proposal.