CINCINNATI -- Glitz, glam and garbage is all in a day's work for Felicia Smith.
For the last eight years, her alarm sounds systematically at 3:15 a.m. She hits snooze once, finally rising out of bed around 3:30. She follows the same routine: Brushes her teeth, grabs a cup of coffee, packs a cooler for the day and tucks her hair tightly underneath/beneath her baseball cap. She "tries to look like a man" to divert anyone who may want to cause her harm because in the shadows before dawn, anything can happen, she said.
She swipes her timecard sharply at 4:30 a.m., then hits the road around 5:30 a.m., steering more than 30,000 pounds of weight down narrow streets. For five months of the year, her breath appears as a fog and despite the three layers of clothes, she can feel the bitter bite of winter.
In this thankless line of work, the 5-foot-3-inch, 44-year-old mother of two makes nearly 600 stops per day for Rumpke; physically hauling bins full of garbage into the back of a dirty truck.
The forecast ultimately decides which direction her day will head. Rain or shine, she's out there cleaning up after all of us. But working in different weather conditions doesn't bother her. Smith said she "couldn't imagine being stuck in an office" and that working outdoors is ideal for her. It's hard, she admits, but that's what keeps her going.
"I'm not getting any younger. I try to be realistic and think, 'You're 44. You're not going to be able to do this much longer,' but hey, I look at some 44-year-olds and I look darn good. And it's because of this job. I'm out there, stress-free," she said.
She needs to be two different people: A man at work and a woman at home. Smith says her job can be overwhelming but that she enjoys being one of the boys.
"I try to be a lady but in so many ways, I try to be a man. When we start, it's still dark. You need to be aware of your surroundings," she said as she tugged on her neon baseball cap that hides her hair. "We live in a society where anything could happen. It could be four in the morning and people look through their windows at me and sometimes I like that; to know someone's paying attention to me."
As one of 13 female employees at Rumpke Recycling, working alongside 69 men, she realizes this job isn't for most women.
"A lot of women ask me how I do this. Well, one day at a time first of all," she said, laughing. "Personally, I like being around a lot of men because you don't have so much drama."
Smith wishes that more women worked at Rumpke. " When I see a new woman here, I think, 'I hope she can make it.' They have came and went," said Smith. With eight years of experience, it makes her the longest-standing female driver at Rumpke.
"This job is not for everyone. Not every woman could do this job," she said. "You have to have that endurance."
After more than 10 hours of physical labor, all she wants to do is go home and "be still." But as a wife and mother of two, it's just not in the cards for her.
"Once I leave Rumpke, it's hard for me sometimes because I just want to stop moving. You just want to take off these hot boots, all these clothes and just be a lady," Smith said, her manicured nails laying atop one another as she spoke.
But her job isn't over, as she switches from one realm of responsibility to another once she's off the clock. Smith has a husband and two children to care for; a son with narcolepsy and a young daughter.
"We have to be wives, mothers, sisters, aunts and we have to work. There's so much we have to do. Doing this (work) then going home and being a wife and a mother, it just comes natural to me. Or maybe I've just been here too long," she said, laughing.
She dreams of Saturday afternoons where she can shop, take a warm bath and enjoy a good glass of wine before the inevitable buzzing from her clock sounds at 3:15 a.m. on Monday, once again.
Jumping from St. Bernard to Colerain Township, we move from one end of the garbage truck to the other. WCPO rode along with a male garbage collector, working the same schedule as Smith.
John Rutherford, a 30-year-old father of five, has been working at Rumpke for nine years. Similar to Smith, he's all about his family when he's not heaving garbage. He said he's constantly at soccer practices and school functions for his children. The one great thing about this industry, he said, is the time.
"Guys can get done and home by lunchtime. You have all the free time in the world at home to go home and do things before any of your friends or family even get off work so it's really nice having that flexibility," he said.
But before he can enjoy that free time, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. to dump trash from nearly 500 locations per day at the 69-year-old landfill in Colerain Township; he picks up less than what's expected of Smith.
The current "hole" at the Rumpke Landfill is a 150 ft. deep square. The walls surrounding the hole are garbage and rock. The ground appears as soil, but is layered, churned and decomposing garbage mixed with storm and waste water. U-shaped tubes scattered across 334 acres collect methane gas released underground from the trash. The gas is transported to their on-site management system and converted into energy used by Duke Energy throughout Cincinnati and is also used to fuel their trucks. Drivers frequent this area during their dump.
As we followed Rutherford on his morning route through Colerain, we could barely keep up. He works at such a fast pace in order to hit the hundreds of stops he needs to make.
Between the baby diapers, decomposing animal carcasses and rotten food, Rutherford has learned to deal with the smell. "Everyone's stomach is a little weaker than the next. I've seen people who can't handle it as well as others," he said.
"You grow up, you're a little kid and you see the garbage man out there but a lot of people don't really think about every aspect of the job," Rutherford said. "I know before I started here, I didn't know."
As for the danger they face, Rutherford said if you're not careful, you can get hurt badly. But Rumpke hosts monthly training sessions for all of their drivers to keep them safe. Things like paint or aerosol cans are not meant to be thrown away because they will combust in the back of the truck, he said, and can become flying objects.
Along his route, Rutherford picks up numerous trash bins up and hauls them into the truck. He runs into these issues when people use their own bins that can't connect to the truck. Part of his job requires him to be able to lift 75 lbs or more, more than 600 times per day.
"The job keeps you in shape. It's like anything, when you do it enough, your body adjusts to it," he said.
"In the nine years I've been here, I've seen just about everything in people's trash. Syringes...that's happened a few times," he said, noting that Rumpke trains drivers on the proper way to handle cans with those hazardous waste materials.
Unfortunately, he has run into situations where people don't use bags to collect their trash, or throw excess garbage into an open bin, in which he needs to physically empty the trash cans. Waste water and excess fluids also stew together in the bottom of bins, which can be dangerous in a sense and smelly.
"There are things that not everyone will think about for their garbage man," he said.
Four helpful tips when setting out those trash bins:
- If you're using a red Rumpke Recycling bin, you should switch to a green bin instead. The new, green bins are the only ones that can attach to their new trucks. It makes life a lot easier on workers like Felicia Smith!
- Know what you can and cannot recycle. If Smith happens to stop by your house, she will leave you a Post-It note informing you of what she noticed in your bin that will be discarded as a "reject" at the facility.
- In email copies from Rumpke of positive customer feedback, we read that Smith has run down the street to gather loose trash and she'll tidy up your yard if she has time. Next time you notice trash in your yard or a neighbors, do your best to help out your garbage collector.
- Don't discard paint or aerosol cans (or anything similar) because they can fly out of the truck and seriously injure someone like John Rutherford. Remember when tossing broken glass, needles or anything else that can puncture a bag, those items could also hurt a worker.
- Leave the bins as close to the road at the bottom of your driveway so the drivers don't have to go an extra mile (Although John and Felicia have both been known on a regular basis to walk bins back to the door for their customers; just so they don't have to. Talk about going an extra mile!)
After your next home-cooked meal, and before you toss the leftovers into the trash along with other discarded items, take a moment to think about the man or woman who wakes at 3 a.m. to collect your trash. These people work in some unbelievable conditions, rain or shine, for 10 hours or more per day to clean up after all of us in the Tri-State.
This is part of an on-going series that aims to showcase remarkable professions across Greater Cincinnati. These unsung workers make a living in some peculiar ways. We’ll give you an inside, eye-opening look to the often grimy and under-appreciated, but necessary, professions in the Tri-State.
WCPO's Brian Niesz edited video for this piece.
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