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What's Fair: An Open Letter From a "Seasonal" Sanitation Worker

My name is Timothy Johnson. I am many things. I am a father, a veteran, a taxpayer, active member of the Coalition for Economic Justice, and a seasonal sanitation worker for the City of Buffalo.

I write this letter in frustration, confusion, and even aggravation. I ask for an ear, a moment, maybe some help or direction.

I served in the military for 12 years and received an honorable discharge. I have served this city for the past nine years with the same dedication I served my country. But something isn’t right about how the city has served and treated me.

I am a hard-charging seasonal sanitation worker. Unlike many before me and those that will come after me, my job wasn’t given to me based on signatures or political donations. I earned my job, I am on time, I am there every day, and I work very hard.

Our title “seasonal” is often confusing. It does not mean that we just work during the summer, or a certain season of the year, as some might suspect. We are laid off for one week every six months. Other than that we are on the streets, keeping the city clean.

As a seasonal sanitation worker, I work side by side with permanent workers, doing the same work, working the same hours. However, unlike the permanent workers, we don’t have a union and we aren’t protected. We don’t have benefits, sick leave, vacation, or holidays. I have worked as a “seasonal” worker for nine years and have not yet been promoted to “permanent” or full-time status. The work wouldn’t change, but the benefits, job stability, and my own personal peace of mind would.

After nine years, I am unable to take my daughter to the doctor, because we are not given any personal days. If I dont go to work, I don’t get paid. And I certainly cannot take off a day if I am sick. I literally cannot afford to.

My daughter was born four months premature, weighing only one pound, and was very sick. She had to be hospitalized for months after she was born. Despite this, I was at work every day, giving the city 100 percent, because I needed to provide for my family. Shortly after my daughter was born, my oldest daughter died due to complications associated with diabetes. She lived in Virginia and was to be buried in Virginia. So as not to miss work, I left for Virginia, buried my daughter, and immediately returned home to go to work. I had no time to grieve because I had to return to work. If I wasn’t working, I wasn’t getting paid, and I needed to take care of my family. Although I was struggling with my own health and my emotions, I continued to serve this city with everything I had.

On one occasion, I observed my foreman harassing a co-worker because of his religion. I promptly and respectfully asked him to stop. The event was so offensive that I went to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and filed a grievance. When my foreman found out, he came down on me hard, and I was forced to retract my grievance due to the threats. I needed to take care of my daughter, and losing a job that I had worked hard to get was not an option. My co-worker who was the target of the my foreman’s bigotry was made a permanent employee, and I continued as a seasonal.

I have been a vocal leader on living wages, and a plaintiff in legal dispute with the city to retrieve wages we are owed by the city. The city continues to appeal, spending public dollars just so that they don’t have to pay us. It confuses me. Why spend taxpayer money on costly legal fees instead of paying us what we are owed, and what the courts have said we are owed?

These are own a few examples of how the Mayor of Buffalo, Byron Brown, has failed to serve the residents of Buffalo and the seasonal sanitation workers. The sanitation department is a necessary department in the city. We are out every single day keeping the streets and the city clean.

I am not writing this to complain, but to share my experiences and what I have observed as unfair labor practices. I don’t want to see others experience what I have. I want to see a fairer system for treating and promoting workers within the sanitation department. Others should reap the benefits of my labor and my fight for family-sustaining wages. We need to have the worker and job protection that is necessary to improving our quality of life.

Seasonal sanitation workers need to be unionized or after a certain number of years of dedication to the city be promoted into permanent status which would provide us with a union, strong benefits, and job security.

- Timothy Johnson, Buffalo

Artvoice reserves the right to edit letters for content and length. Shorter letters have a better chance at being published in their entirety. Please include your name, hometown, and contact number. E-mail letters to: or write to: Artvoice Letters, 810 Main Street, Buffalo, NY 14202

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