June 11, 2020

Upton Sinclair Lecture 2020: Investigative Reporter Susie Neilson Reveals Dangerous Side of California's Recycling Industry

By Abby Roberts

In opening AIHce EXP’s 2020 Upton Sinclair lecture, presenter Susie Neilson recounted a conversation between Lorena Gonzalez, the California state assemblywoman for San Diego, and Gonzalez’s four-year-old son as they passed by an office building at night. The boy asked his mother why the building’s lights were sill turned on. According to Neilson, Gonzalez answered, “They’re on because there are people working in there.”

“I’ve thought about that a lot,” Neilson continued, “as I’ve been thinking about the kinds of workers we don’t see. We either choose not to see them, or they do work when we can’t see them. And those are the workers who are most vulnerable.”

Neilson, a 2019 graduate of UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, used the anecdote in her Upton Sinclair lecture to introduce “Unseen: Living in the Shadows of the Golden State,” the project that she and her classmates worked on in their second year. She explained that California’s nickname “the Golden State,” given to California during the Gold Rush, encapsulates its modern ideals. It’s an affluent state with a progressive tax system and the second highest (third, if Washington, D.C., is included) minimum wage in the United States. If it were its own country, California would be the fifth largest economy in the world.

But there are also phenomena that Neilson and her team referred to as the Golden State’s “shadow”: lack of funding for public initiatives during recessions, widening income inequality, strained infrastructure, underenforcement of safety regulations, and poverty. The “Unseen” project’s mission was to focus on workers who are at risk for injury, and who are often denied healthcare, safety training, and legal protection, while working in jobs not often under public scrutiny.

These workers are disproportionately women, people of color, incarcerated, low-wage, or part of the gig economy. They often perform jobs considered essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, but frequently aren’t offered health insurance. In addition, many are undocumented immigrants who lack access to the legal system or to health services, and aren’t protected by regulations. Neilson’s classmates, who worked with her on the project, created multimedia stories about undocumented immigrants in California, wage theft, cannabis workers, prison laborers, and tradeswomen. Her contribution, titled “On the Line,” was an investigation of the state’s waste and recycling workers.

“The thesis statement of [my] project, I would say, is that California has some of the nation’s most progressive recycling policies and goals, but the industry’s workers face hazardous conditions, and global market forces are adding to their strains,” Neilson said. Waste, she explained, was “the definition of unseen.”

“You don’t want to look at waste when you throw it away. You don’t want to look at your bottles and cans when you throw them in the recycling,” she added. “But somebody has to look at it. Somebody has to look at it every day, eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, at least.”

An investigation of public lawsuit records in Alameda County told her that recycling workers were being hurt and killed on the job, largely unseen by the rest of the public. Further research revealed that recycling facilities are tied for the fourth highest occupational injury rate among all American industries. Workers interviewed by Neilson for her project spoke of having handled grenades on the line, in addition to dealing with broken glass, dust, and toxic chemicals.

Victoria Leon, an Oakland mother of two and a former employee of Waste Management, Inc., was one of the many people Neilson interviewed over the course of her project. She began working for the company after the death of her first husband. At Waste Management she met her second husband, Sergio, where they worked side by side.

“It’s important to humanize the people that you’re talking about, while they’re encapsulating these larger issues,” Neilson said as she recounted Leon’s story.

In 2014, Leon injured her back while at work. This was her first occupational injury, and she was unsure what to do. Eventually, she received workers’ compensation, saw a doctor, and received treatment.

But in 2016, she was injured again on the job. This time, pain flooded her entire body, and her back felt hot. That day, a doctor treated her with pain relievers and minor physical therapy. However, over time, Leon found herself increasingly incapable of performing her work.

She asked multiple times to see a doctor again, but her supervisor refused. When she was eventually permitted, the doctor was different than the first one she saw. This new doctor dismissed her injury without examining her, asserted that the injury was not work-related, and even blamed her for it.

The lawyers who Neilson spoke with for the project stated that while most employers genuinely do want their workers to be well, they are often concerned with controlling their company’s healthcare costs.

“It is often cheaper to brush the problem under the rug rather than address it,” Neilson said. This is what Leon believed was happening to her. She was told to seek private healthcare at her own expense.

Eventually, Neilson explained, a qualified medical evaluator for the state of California found that Leon’s back was injured, that her injuries had left her partially disabled with 40 percent loss in upper body strength, and that the injuries were work-related. Leon eventually settled with Waste Management for $35,000, and in return agreed not to work for the company again. She now works at Tesla.

“Unseen” documents the struggles of many other recycling industry workers. One is Delphina Cassias, an undocumented immigrant who was paid $8.00 per hour when she started working at a recycling facility at Alameda County Industries. According to Neilson, Cassias was put on the line with no safety training and flimsy gloves as her only personal protective equipment. She had to improvise her own PPE from material she found on her own. And because Cassias was employed by a staffing agency, neither the agency nor the recycling facility took responsibility for her safety.

California’s progressive safety laws should protect workers at recycling facilities but are grossly underenforced, Neilson said. She explained that most recycling facilities in the state were not inspected during a four-year period from 2014 to 2018, while between 2015 and 2017 the rate of injuries for recycling workers increased. Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the safety of recycling plant workers as well: not only do they have to continue working during the pandemic in very close quarters, but they are also handling increased amounts of residential waste, some of it contaminated, while lacking appropriate PPE, Neilson said.

Neilson’s project, and those of her classmates, can be viewed online.

Abby Roberts is AIHA's editorial assistant.