SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Union leaders representing more than 350 San Francisco Public Works employees are calling on Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors to require the city to provide dedicated restrooms for its workers.
Because DPW workers are tasked with cleaning the city’s streets and often handle biohazards like garbage, urine and feces, union officials said the need for clean bathrooms and handwashing facilities has become urgent amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Back in July, dozens of Public Works employees staged a rally at the department’s Operation Yard, calling for bathrooms and handwashing facilities on the job, alleging the department barred workers from using the operation yard during their lunch breaks.
Although the workers were encouraged by DPW to use the public Pit-Stop toilets, the Laborers’ International Union of North Americas, Local 261 says its workers feel unsafe using those facilities and sharing them with homeless people who, according to union officials, may liken them to police.
But DPW officials said, including the Pit-Stop toilets, workers had a total of 50 facilities throughout the city to choose from. The department also said it provided the workers with hand sanitizer, as well as water and soap to clean up on the job.
Union officials, however, said that’s still not enough.
“How can the city not provide clean, safe, restroom and handwashing facilities? It is inhumane for San Francisco to treat its own employees and citizens this way,” union spokeswoman Theresa Foglio-Ramirez said in a statement Wednesday. “Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when businesses were open, these employees could more easily find a clean bathroom facility at a restaurant, business, gas station or shop. That is no longer case — and may not be the case for a longtime to come.”
Union leaders allege the workers are being retaliated against because of whistleblowing that led to the federal criminal charges for former DPW Director Mohammed Nuru, who is currently facing jail time over an alleged scheme to bribe a San Francisco International Airport commissioner.
“We believe that this denial of clean, safe bathroom and handwashing facilities is not merely an oversight or penny pinching by public works, but instead is direct retaliation for the Union’s early complaints about corrupt practices in the public works department,” Foglio-Ramirez said. “We were among the first to blow the whistle on now disgraced department head Mohammed Nuru. Our early warnings about abuses and illegal activities played a role in the Department of Justice investigation of illegal City Hall contracts and hiring practices. Instead of being rewarded for bring corruption to light, we are being punished by public works.”
Although union officials said they filed a grievance with the city’s Human Resources Department seven months ago over the bathroom issue, the union said its concerns have gone unheard.
In a letter sent to Breed and the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, union officials asked for immediate action, saying “We demand humane treatment of these employees — our members — who are performing some of the most difficult cleaning assignment that anyone could be asked to do.”
In response, DPW Deputy Director of Operations Larry Stringer said in a statement, “We understand the need of our field staff to have access to bathrooms and we have made sure they do. The COVID crisis has created challenges. Some of the toilets that our workers normally would use are temporarily off limits. In response to their needs and public demand, we rapidly accelerated our nationally recognized Pit Stop toilet program and now have more than four dozen staffed locations available in San Francisco; the vast majority open day and night. Additional toilets have been deployed for the sole use of Public Works field employees. Crews also have access to park restrooms throughout the City, putting the total number of available toilets for our crews well north of 100.
“We have provided field staff with information on the locations of the units. We also regularly remind employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom — a good-hygiene practice even before COVID-19 hit — and we supply our employees with hand sanitizer and masks,” he said.
Also, in response to the retaliation claims, he said, “For Local 261 to assert that Public Works management is using the toilets as a tool of retribution is absurd. The department’s commitment to expanding access to bathrooms for the public and our employees has been resolute.”
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