Driven to death: Carting company’s overworking and law skirting leads to fatal accidents, workers claim

Driven to death: Carting company’s overworking and law skirting leads to fatal accidents, workers claim
Community News Group / Julianne Cuba

They’re commanded to work as many hours as allowed by law — and pick up some overtime.

Calls come from bosses while they’re behind the wheel asking them where they’re at — and to speed up.

When they hit a red light — they’re coached on how to run it.

That is the culture of malfeasance truckers at Action Carting, the garbage firm whose unlicensed truck driver hit and killed 27-year-old Netfaly Ramirez last July, have to deal with every day, claimed those who work there and union officials.

The Brooklyn Paper spoke to two employees of a union representing Action Carting staffers — one of whom once drove for the company — and a current Action driver, and all of them claimed management at the New Jersey-based private-carting firm demands speed over safety from its truck operators.

“Drivers are kind of always put under the gun to get their stops done however they can in a timely fashion,” said Ray Borrero, who works for the Teamsters Local 813. “During the course of the night, you get calls asking where you’re at or what’s taking so long, and that adds to the pressure.”

Action Carting’s drivers — including 63-year-old Jose Nunez, who ran over 27-year-old Neftaly Ramirez while driving a truck without the proper license — usually start their work weeks on Sunday nights, sometimes driving for as many as 14 hours straight, the legal limit under federal law, as they collect garbage from across the city, leaving them little time to recuperate, according to Borrero.

The majority of Action truckers work six days a week, with around five percent clocking a five-day work week, and all can receive overtime pay for driving more than 40 or 60 hours, depending on their contracts, the Local 813 rep said.

The drivers can either pilot a “packer” — the truck Nunez drove when he hit Ramirez — that requires the aid of a co-worker, called a helper, and makes more local stops picking up standard trash bags, or a “roll-off,” which collects larger containers such as dumpsters and is operated by a single employee.

Driving either truck is a hard job, but those behind the wheels of Action’s packers are notoriously overworked, according to the current employee, who said he used to drive one but switched to a roll-off to give his body a break.

Action demands its packer drivers work nearly twice as much as those at some other private sanitation companies, according to the worker who requested anonymity out of fear he would lose his job if his bosses knew he talked to a newspaper.

A typical night in his previous position as a packer driver for the Texas-based firm Waste Management lasted between six and eight hours — occasionally stretching as long as 10–12 — with anywhere from 150 to 300 “stops,” which can vary from quick pickups at a single mom-and-pop to longer ordeals at commercial complexes with multiple clients. But for Action packers, a light night requires 200 to 300 stops, and a heavy one can mean anywhere from 500 to 1,000, the Action employee said.

“Physically I can’t work all those hours, it’s just way too much,” the anonymous driver said.

Another former Action Carting packer operator who also once drove for Waste Management agreed that the New Jersey company overworked him, saying he would routinely skip meals in order to complete his shift.

“I used to have 14 hours, and what I had to do was not stop for lunch — there was no other way I could get my route done. And when you couldn’t get your route done, the supervisor would chastise you,” said Allan Henry, who now works as an organizer for Local Union No. 813.

And company higher-ups have told drivers to ignore traffic laws if it’ll save time, Henry said — behavior that locals routinely document.

“I’ve been told by workers who’ve been pulled into an office and shown a tape of them running lights, they tell them, ‘Try to stop and look both ways before you run the light, just don’t run through it,’ ” he said.

But instead of lightening truckers’ workloads by hiring more and shrinking their routes, Action honchos routinely ask drivers to make more stops in their given collection areas, the current employee said.

“They should have a lot more drivers on the road. That eliminates the long hours, and the accidents,” the anonymous worker said. “But Action is doing the total opposite — if there are three routes that are right next to each other, they will eliminate the one in the middle, break it in half, and add each half to the [two] others.”

And company bosses don’t seem motivated to change protocol for the good of their workers, according to Henry.

“They really don’t give a damn about the standard that they diminished,” the former Action employee said.

A rep for another union that represents Action employees — including Nunez, before he retired shortly after hitting and killing Ramirez, according to his coworkers — called the accusations that company honchos terminally overwork their drivers ridiculous. He added, however, that his group is fighting to institute a shorter, five-day work week in the next round of contract negotiations.

“As far as complaints or concerns about excessive hours or the company not allowing for proper breaks, I find that to be a ludicrous accusation,” said Mike Hellstrom of Laborers Local 108.

Before any motorist can even hit the road inside a massive garbage truck, he or she must obtain a commercial driver’s license, which requires medical clearance and passing specialized written and road tests.

Nunez did not have one, and Action Carting rep Ken Frydman declined to comment on whether his bosses knew that, how often the company checks the validity of its employees’ licenses, and if Nunez ever got behind the wheel of another truck after fatally striking Ramirez, citing an expected civil suit the deceased’s family plans to file against the carting company. Frydman confirmed that Nunez retired last year, but would not specify when.

Each source this newspaper spoke to was shocked to hear that Nunez was on the road without a valid commercial license, however, because all of them said Action honchos regularly check drivers’ credentials, although they couldn’t say how often.

“That’s a big no-no,” said the current driver. “They do have someone that monitors our licenses to make sure they are valid.”

And Borrero questioned how that could have even happened in the first place.

“He should never have been behind the wheel of that truck,” he said. “How did that fall through the cracks? They really dropped the ball on that one.”

When police found out Nunez was on the road without the proper license — a fact authorities never released, which this newspaper confirmed after speaking to the Ramirez family’s lawyer — they slapped him with a summons four months after the fatal crash. The violation Nunez received typically results in a $150–500 fine, according to a New York State courts spokesman.

Still, hitting and killing the cyclist while driving without the correct license was not enough for District Attorney Eric Gonzalez to press criminal charges, and the top prosecutor absolved Nunez on Jan. 9.

Authorities said the driver didn’t know he hit Ramirez and that they lacked the evidence needed to charge Nunez, in part because they claimed there is no surveillance footage of his packer truck plowing into the cyclist — only clips showing the moments before and after.

But the district attorney’s prosecutors told the Ramirez family’s attorney, Michael Kremins, that video clips show Nunez’s helper riding on the back of the truck moments before the crash, and inside the cabin immediately following it — which the lawyer said doesn’t add up. An eyewitness claimed to see Nunez’s helper in the vehicle at the time of the collision, according to police.

This newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Law request on Jan. 17 for evidence from the fatal crash, including video, now that the case is closed, but the city denied it, claiming the release of such information would “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

And Local 813 rep Borrero, former Action driver Henry, and the anonymous employee still working for the company said that all of its trucks should be equipped with two cameras.

“Action has cameras equipped in their trucks that face inside in the cab and face out into the street,” Borrero said.

Henry, who left Action in 2014, said he remembers the first cameras being installed around 2013, and the driver currently employed by the company said its trucks are equipped with the technology.

“They started putting cameras in, maybe, 2013, so it’s hard to believe [Nunez’s] truck didn’t have a camera,” Henry said. “Anything is a possibility, but in my perspective, when I worked there, once they started using them, the cameras worked every day.”

But the district attorney’s rep Oren Yaniv claimed the truck Nunez drove when he hit Ramirez had no cameras.

Frydman declined to comment on whether all of its trucks are equipped with cameras and how many vehicles are in its fleet — but last December, months after Nunez hit and killed Ramirez, another company rep claimed it would finish installing the technology in all of its trucks by the end of 2017, garbage blog Waste360 reported.

The Greenpoint cyclist isn’t the only victim of Action’s drivers — at least fourteen people filed civil suits against the company since 2012, after collisions with its trucks left them either severely or mildly injured, court records show. Five of those lawsuits were settled out of court, according to the records, which don’t specify each settlement’s details.

And Action’s truckers have hit and killed five people, including Ramirez, in the last decade, according to multiple reports. In 2008, an employee plowed into British tourists Andrew Hardie and Jacklyn Timmons in Manhattan, and another Action trucker ran over 24-year-old cyclist Timothy “TJ” Campbell in Williamsburg later that year. And in 2011, a driver backed over Mark Chanko in Manhattan.

Borrero said the last time he remembers cops cuffing an Action driver for a fatal collision was in response to the 2008 double fatality, when the employee hit and killed the two pedestrians after suffering a seizure while behind the wheel.

Authorities charged the driver with manslaughter and negligent homicide because they said he chose not to take his medication before operating his vehicle and, according to both Borrero and a New York Times report, did not disclose his health condition when applying for a commercial license.

“He falsified the medical exam, and he did go to jail,” Borrero said.

But deadly collisions are also devastating to those drivers who don’t intend to harm anyone when they get behind the wheel, he said.

“My worst nightmare is having to deal with my members in sanitation getting involved in some kind of fatality,” Borrero said. “We don’t go out there looking to purposely hit people.”

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.
In action: An Action Carting packer truck made its way down Broadway in Bushwick on Feb. 7.
Community News Group / Anthony Rotunno