Collecting garbage in Lake County is far from a trashy job.
Story: Chris Gerbasi
Live snakes. Dead pets. Fresh ammunition. Spent sex toys. Poisonous chemicals. Contagious diseases. They’re all part of a day in the life of a garbage collector.
And don’t forget all those foul odors, even though they smell like new dollar bills to Daryl Brown Jr., who works at WCA Lake County Hauling in Tavares.
“There’s an old garbage man saying: ‘It’s the smell of money,’” Daryl says. “I come home stinking and my wife says, ‘You need to take a shower,’ and I say, ‘You smell that smell? That’s money.’”
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as another saying goes.
Lake County uses several hauling contractors, including WCA, which serves about 40,000 residential, commercial, and industrial customers. Despite the obvious sensory drawbacks to working with garbage and the dangers of the job, WCA sees no shortage of applicants, site manager Terrence Rolle says.
Daryl, who has worked at WCA for about five years, usually is part of a two-man crew on a rear loader; one drives while the other throws garbage. While many communities have “toter” trash carts that are picked up by automated, one-arm side loaders, some neighborhoods still need cans and bags picked up the old-fashioned way: by hand.
It’s a physically demanding job, but that’s why Daryl likes it.
“I look at it like they’re paying me to work out. It keeps me in shape,” he says. “I’m constantly lifting and constantly jumping on and off the truck…What I do in a day’s time a person might not do in a whole week.”
His day starts at 5:30am and typically runs until 4:30pm Monday through Friday, a 55-hour week minimum. After morning collections in neighborhoods with as many as 300 houses, Daryl and his partner will pick up bulk items, such as TVs and couches, that can’t be picked up by automated loaders. They might cover up to 50 homes a day during Christmastime and spring cleaning.
“There’s no slow season in garbage,” says Daryl, who lives in Maitland with his wife, Tywana, and five children. “If you want to be able to take care of your family, there’s good money in it, and it’s guaranteed. The hours are there, the money is there.”
And the garbage is there. You name it, Daryl has seen it. People put dead animals in the trash, but sometimes trash collectors are rescuers. He recently discovered a litter of kittens in an old couch, and they eventually were taken to a veterinarian. Personal items that normally would be found in the bedroom are sometimes found in the trash. Contents often are covered in maggots, and odors from the back of the truck reach the driver up front even with the windows rolled up.
“You’ve got to have a little stomach for it,” Daryl says, adding that workers get used to the odors. “You smell it so much you don’t let it bother you.”
The toughest part of the job is working in the elements, he says. Trash collectors don’t work during lightning storms, but they will work in a downpour and on the coldest mornings and the hottest days. They look for signs of heatstroke and keep tabs on each other’s well-being.
“I can honestly say garbage is not for everybody,” Daryl says.
Terrence, the site manager, agrees. While most people view garbage collecting simply as manual labor, he says the job requires professionalism, accountability, and mental toughness.
A Leesburg native who now lives in Summerfield, Terrence has thrived in the garbage industry since 2007. He was the first employee hired by WCA at the Tavares site in 2014, starting as a driver before rising to management. He oversees operations and a staff of 43 employees, including 33 drivers. The company recently hired two women to work on rear loaders, doing the same work as men.
The training that workers receive in the garbage industry is second to none, Terrence says, and WCA conducts weekly safety meetings. Refuse collecting is the fifth-most dangerous job in the country for fatalities, according to a study by 24/7 Wall St., a Delaware financial news and opinion company.
“It’s a very dangerous job,” he says. “Anytime you’re dealing with highways and roadways with the general public, there are opportunities for a lot of things to go wrong.”
The trash contents also can be hazardous. Terrence recalls people putting muriatic acid, a poisonous solution with harmful fumes, in their garbage cans. Truckloads have caught fire because people placed smoldering charcoal in the trash. One driver recently found live ammunition, including several .357-caliber casings and shotgun shells, which could have gone off inside the back of the truck.
Terrence, who still throws garbage on occasion, recently was rattled by two live snakes in the garbage. At first, he wwas “scared to death.”
“Luckily, with us having pitchforks and shovels on our unit, you try to scoop them out of there and get them out of the unit and let them go on their way,” he says.
Terrence jumps on the back of a truck not only to fill in for somebody, but also to show his staff that he’s still willing to get his hands dirty.
“It’s basically leading by example. There’s nothing there that I would ask anybody to do that I’m not willing to do myself,” he says. “It works wonders. The respect level that you get from that is priceless.”
It’s a living
Why would anyone willingly spend their day with garbage? Money.
The garbage industry provides a good living for nearly 6,000 workers in the state. Florida has the nation’s fourth-highest employment level for refuse collectors behind California, New York, and Texas, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As of May 2018, the average hourly wage for the job in Florida was $17.53 and the average annual wage was $36,460, the bureau reports. These figures are below the national averages for this occupation, however: $19.50 hourly and $40,560 annually.
WCA Lake County Hauling in Tavares is part of WCA, a national company with headquarters in Houston. Drivers must be 21 years of age and have a Class B commercial driver’s license. Starting pay is $16 an hour. Workers receive paid holidays, health benefits after 60 days, and the opportunity to enroll in a 401(k) plan with a company match. Vacation pay is based on average weekly hours, which typically run well over 40 hours. Drivers generally get weekends off, which is not typical in the industry, according to site manager Terrence Rolle.
He says that while there is no shortage of drivers, it can be difficult to retain employees initially. Some newcomers aren’t prepared for the weather conditions or the physical labor.
“A lot of employees, they think that they can do it and they find out that garbage isn’t for them,” he says.
But many of WCA’s employees have been with the company since it started locally in 2014.
“It is a real good industry for someone to make a real decent living in garbage,” he says.