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DSNY Vet Beat Cancer, Now He’s Staying Ahead of COVID-19

“We need to keep our guard up.” — veteran DSNY worker Joey Puccio.

New York, NY – Joey Puccio is like many city workers throughout the Big Apple – he’s contending with the invisible threat that is the coronavirus, while hoping Mayor Bill de Blasio will abandon plans to eliminate city jobs to close the gap in the city budget.

Puccio initially took the test to join the Department of Sanitation in 1990 because of the job security and  benefits that he fears could vanish. He ultimately became a sanitation driver and an International Brotherhood Teamsters Local 831 member in 1998.

“I actually owned my own flooring business, but I took this job because of the benefit status it could give me later in life, which is actually awesome,” Puccio told LaborPress. “I was working the night shift and during the day time I was operating my business, then after a year-and-a-half I ended up selling the business.”

Puccio also had to focus on his health after being diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma and getting treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

“Everything worked out really well and I was treated at Sloan Kettering for nine months,” he says. “Sure enough, my benefits helped me tremendously. They covered up to 98-percent of costs for radiation, chemotherapy, bone marrow testing and ever since then I appreciated the job more than ever. It backed me up while I was going through cancer.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a typical 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. workday for Puccio consisted of  collecting waste from businesses, hospitals and residential areas around Windsor Terrace and Park Slope in Brooklyn.

“Until this day I have no regrets,” the Staten Island resident says. “It’s a rough job. We work through rain, storms, hurricanes and snowstorms but we are still out there. We still have to do our job no matter what. We still have to do the priority roads. We make sure the main access to the hospital, precincts and firehouses are clear. Then we do the main avenues and the side streets. It’s a hard job, it’s a harsh job, but it’s a great job.”

Puccio is also proud that the DSNY is recruiting more women into the ranks.

“We are getting more women coming aboard with us and they work just as hard as us,” he says. “I’ve even recommended to my daughters that when the test comes out, take it.”

Since the coronavirus hit the U.S., Puccio has seen a huge uptick in trash, including an even bigger uptick in recyclables.

“There has been such an increase in cardboard, metal and glass because people are home and they are doing a lot of online shopping,” Puccio says. “A lot of people are also doing a lot of cleanouts — even us. My wife and I are throwing out stuff we had laying around in our attic and our backyard for many years.”

Puccio has seen far more  old clothes and furniture being tossed out on his route,  which now, because of COVID, runs from 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. The old shift exposed DSNY workers to potentially more hazardous interactions with the public.

“We are doing 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. rather than 6 a.m. because we are no longer interacting with as many people because of the virus,” he says.

Despite Puccio’s safety concerns, he is happy with how the DSNY is handling the coronavirus. Within a week of the March 15, government shutdown in New York, Puccio says he and his co-workers received necessary Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Still, he realizes that workers must remain diligent.

“I’ll be honest with you, I’m a nervous wreck,” he says. “We are dumping a lot more garbage out. We see masks, gloves, tissues and napkins that people are blowing their nose or wiping their face with. We don’t know as sanitation workers if we are going to get that virus by touching it or when we are dumping the pail. We are still on pins and needles.”

According to Puccio, Sanitation workers get new masks daily, and are outfitted with bottles of hand sanitizer to keep with them at all times and in their trucks. There’s also a a hand sanitizer pump with refills back at the garage. A union representative keeps tabs on safety measures throughout the garage as many as three times a week.

“We have COVID-cleaning,” Puccio says. “We have up to three guys that clean every part of the truck during the day time. They clean the handles at the back of the hopper, the steering wheel and the handles at the back of the truck. They clean the office, the computers and the locker rooms. I’ve never seen it so spotless.”

Puccio might take issue with de Blasio possibly axing sanitation jobs now, but at the start of the shutdown, he appreciated the mayor and former DSNY Commissioner Kathryn Garcia and the foresight they had realizing that shuttered delis were causing a serious food dilemma for everybody at the garage.

“They actually brought lunches to every department that came with a drink,” says Puccio. “It was very nice of them to think of that situation which we were in. Sometimes, you had a 12-hour day and there was nowhere to go to eat — but then you walked towards the refrigerator and there were trays and trays of individual food that varied day by day.”

Puccio is also very thankful for his union representative.

“Our union rep said to us, ‘Try to be extremely courteous to the people out on these streets,'” Puccio says. “‘A lot of people out there had lost loved ones. Some of them are out of work or are going to a hospital. If someone is honking the horn and they are in a rush don’t argue with them, go around the block and let them get by.’ Our union rep was speaking from his heart.”

Puccio also hopes that the same consideration will be extended to Sanitation workers. He has lost seven friends to the virus, including the daughter of a family friend. His eldest daughter is studying to become a radiologist at a veterans’ hospital and had to witness a 25-year-old Marine fighting cancer die after contracting COVID-19.

Puccio drives from Brooklyn to Staten Island, but he can’t immediately interact with family when he gets home. Instead, he has to immediately throw all his clothes in the laundry and shower before relaxing. Then it’s straight to bed in case an extra shift comes up.

“Our Department, along with the Police Department, the Fire Department and other [city] agencies should never really be cut,” Puccio says. “Also, the virus is real. This is not a hoax. How can it be a hoax if you know people that have passed away from it? However, you can’t tell people what to do. Wear a mask for yourself and stay safe. We are coming into flu season and we need to keep our guard up.”

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