About 4 1/2 years ago, our late and much-missed dog Hudson landed a role in an independent film called Nasty Baby, which Sebastian Silva was filming down the street from our apartment. This led to a few weeks where Jen and Hudson spent long hours on the set, and I would sometimes visit briefly while staying at home with our frail older dog Chloe.
The antagonist in the film was played by Reg E. Cathey. If you see it, he plays a frightening and belligerent character. Proof he was a splendid actor, because he was the most warm and charming presence on the block with the cameras off. Kind to our dog, and friendly to me when I would drop a dog bed off during a long shoot. Meeting him was a highlight of our experience with the film, not because of his impressive acting resume, but because he was such a nice man.
All this made news of his death last week particularly sad in our household. He leaves behind some terrific performances and, no doubt, many, many friends.
The online version of my New York Times op-ed on the perils of waste work has been corrected and eliminates the error discussed below. I owe the readers, the Times, and all involved in waste handling occupations context for the original error that was corrected.
In my essay on waste work in the Saturday Times, I made an error obvious to sharp-eyed readers: 31 deaths of refuse and recyclable material collectors in 2016 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) does not equal one death every day. The error is inexcusable but has an explanation: my research covers waste-related work in several occupational categories ranging from janitorial services and laundry work to salvage yards, and in my notes I used in developing the essay I consulted BLS data for the larger category: “administrative and support and waste management and remediation services.” The number of deaths in that category (including the refuse and recycling workers, and also related categories including janitorial and cleaning work — excluding maids and housekeeping cleaners — and hazardous waste remediation, among other occupations such as landscape maintenance and pest extermination) in each of the years between 2013 and 2016 range between 360 and 458, a number that sadly meets the death-per-day rate as expressed in the published essay. Among the 2016 deaths within this category included the following subcategories: 16 in janitorial work and 67 in waste management and remediation services.
(Outside of that broader category, but pertinent to discussions of the hazards of waste work, BLS reported 64 deaths of building cleaning workers, 19 deaths of recyclable material merchant wholesalers, 8 deaths in laundry and drycleaning services, 8 deaths of first-line supervisors of housekeeping and janitorial workers, and 6 deaths in sewage treatment facilities in 2016.)
In my mind, I was thinking of all of these workers when approving the final wording of the essay. However, that thought remained only in my notes and my mind: I made no reference to the above data in the essay or sources I gave the Times (nor did I provide distinctions in the “administrative and support and waste management and remediation services” category between waste-related occupations, and, for example, landscaping services). Responsibility for this error is mine and mine alone.
I regret the error because it detracts from my point that we must recognize and protect the often-overlooked workers who handle wastes. In doing so, I myself obscured the deaths of the workers who perform the various waste-related tasks described in this letter, while presenting an assertion that did not match the data for refuse and recyclable material collectors. I write this letter to recognize those workers in the conversation that no doubt will be generated by my error.
We have entered the fiftieth anniversary of the Memphis Strike, and I wrote a piece for the New York Times about the hazards of waste work then and now.
The hazards facing people in this line of work have a long history — they inspired the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. That walkout was set off in part by the deaths of two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by the hydraulic press of the truck they were riding on one rainy winter evening.
The strike, whose organizers demanded higher pay, the recognition of the workers’ union and safer working conditions, is often associated with the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis the day after delivering his “Mountaintop” speech in support of striking sanitation workers. But when we think about the strike, we should also remember that half a century after his death, the work Dr. King was focused on in the last days of his life remains unfinished.
Thanks to Jenee Desmond-Harris and Clay Risen for giving me space in the paper, and Chris Kindred for the accompanying illustration.