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UNSUNG HEROES: City of Orangeburg sanitation, service workers 'in the middle of it'
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UNSUNG HEROES: City of Orangeburg sanitation, service workers 'in the middle of it'

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Through summer heat and winter chill, rain and storms, the City of Orangeburg's Public Works and Service departments can be counted on to meet the needs of residents.

The last few months -- while many employers have asked their employees to work from the safety of their homes to protect against the coronavirus -- city sanitation and service crews continued to engage with the public as "essential" employees.

"It is hard, regardless, as far as trash picking, you are in danger every day," Public Works residential container pickup foreman Ahmad Boneparte said. "But with the coronavirus, it is even more difficult because at any day, you could come into contact with it. That is the probably the scariest safety scenario."

"I am just doing my job," Boneparte said when asked if he should be considered a hero for sacrificing his health to serve others.

"People underestimate the value of trash pickup. I think that is a very, very big deal," he said. "If trash starts to pile up, then we have another epidemic. That increases the spread of viruses, germs. I am helping to stop the spread of COVID-19 one trash can at a time."

A city's residential trash collection employee's day typically starts around 6:40 a.m. with a safety briefing before heading into the field around 7:15 a.m.

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"A lot has really changed since the impact of the coronavirus," Boneparte said. "There are way more safety precautions and we have different types of masks we wear. We have a choice between the normal hospital safety blue masks. We also have the respiratory masks. The respiratory mask is a little more uncomfortable, but both of those are extremely safe."

Boneparte said gloves are switched out every hour. He says in addition to gloves, he wears plastic insert gloves in the event of a puncture.

"The city does an excellent job to make sure we are extremely safe," Boneparte said. "As far as being one of the sanitation foremen, you really never know what you are going to come into contact with."

Boneparte said he is a husband and father of four small children under the age of 14.

"The first thing they want to do when I come into the house, they want to jump," he said. "You have to pause all the hugs because I got to shower immediately. I have to drop my shoes and everything. I have to shower for an extensive period of time. Antibacterial soap. A whole lot of it."

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Harry Holman works for the city's commercial trash pickup side of things. His day starts at about 2 a.m. and runs to about 10 or 11 a.m.

"I am doing the city a service and the people by collecting this garbage and keeping it out of their way," Holman said. "That way rodents and stuff won't get into it. It is important because the garbage can create germs."

Holman said he had a mask to wear and two sets of gloves, including rubber latex gloves. He also uses hand sanitizers.

"We would wash the truck down and the inside of the truck down," he said, noting because he works the graveyard shift, social distancing typically is not a challenge.

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Working through COVID-19 was somewhat of a concern to Holman, but he knew he needed to do what was best for others.

"I would not consider myself a hero because we all have jobs to do," Holman said. "They pay me to do a job and I do my job to take care of my family. I don't consider myself a hero."

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Orangeburg Department of Public Works Director Dean Felkel praised the city's sanitation front-line sanitation workers for their dedication and service to the city, not only during COVID-19, but all year.

"Sanitation is definitely a hard job that we have to work even in normal conditions," Felkel said. "We have to work in all conditions: rain, sleet, snow. They have to provide the service, but unlike others that may go under shelter, we are out there in the middle of it."

"COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation a little bit with regards to the conditions we have to work in, but they have had to continue doing their job," he said. "These guys have been through it from day one of this whole process. It was a scary moment for them, because no one knew anything about it and still don't know everything about it."

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Felkel said the men in the city's sanitation department most likely do not think of themselves as heroes but their role is crucial.

"They are willing to do their job, and like other public people out here in hospitals and health care, those guys are just as important. "Without sanitation, imagine household garbage not being picked up for three months and nowhere to take it. That becomes a public health issue in itself."

The city has about a dozen men responsible for the day-to-day trash pickup.

The impact of COVID-19 meant the stoppage of the city's recycling pickup until June 15, Felkel said.

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City's service department

Joe Duley works in maintenance in the city's Service Department. His day starts around 7 a.m. and ends at about 3:30 p.m.

His duties include sweeping streets, mowing, fixing potholes and cleaning ditches.

"It is important that we keep the city maintained and looking good," Duley said, noting under COVID-19 he has had to wear masks and gloves and frequently use hand sanitizer.

Despite COVID-19, Duley has worked daily.

"I was concerned so many people are getting it," he said. "It is kind of scary, but we have to be safe and to be careful of where we working and how we are working."

Duley said he does consider himself a hero.

"This virus is still in effect and we are out here amongst people every day," he said. "There is a possibility we can still get it."

"All the time when I leave home in the mornings, I never know what is going to happen when I get here," he said. "All I know is that I get a certain duty and respond to it and they expect me to carry it out."

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Maintenance employee Leandrae Felder said working through COVID-19 has been a concern.

"You don't know who has it when you are out," he said. "I am worried about it."

Felder said while many stayed home, he along with his colleagues were out keeping the city clean.

"We were working through it," he said. "When we get off, we spend time with family. Some did not appreciate that we were doing everything and that kind of bothered me a little bit."

The city's Service Department has nine field employees who did not and have not missed a beat.

"I really appreciate all the hard work and effort they put in during all of this," General Supervisor Wattie Fogle said. "It has been a real trying time for all of us and a real different time for all of us. They worked really hard and are trying to do everything they can to keep themselves safe and everyone else safe."

Fogle said the first week of COVID-19 proved particularly trying as it was the the week strong storms rolled through the city.

"It started out rough," he said. "We were cleaning up after the tornadoes and getting the roads opened back up all the while practicing social distancing as well as we could."

He said workers continue to practice COVID-19 protocols if they are with another crew member.

"As long as they are by themselves, they don't have to wear a mask, but if someone walks up to them, they need to put it on to carry on a conversation with them," Fogle said.

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