ZEPHYRHILLS — Heaving the trash of the city's 6,000 households into the belly of a garbage truck isn't a job for sissies.
Sharp objects break through bags, stabbing or slicing hands, arms and legs. Bulging bags break and last night's leftovers are accessorizing today's outfit. Running alongside ambling trucks in the scorching heat pushes a body to near exhaustion. Angry dogs break loose from fenced yards. Impatient drivers careen around trucks.
For $11 an hour — starting salary for an entry-level city sanitation worker — it hardly seems worth it.
But for the trash men of Zephyrhills, job satisfaction isn't always about the money. It's about being appreciated; feeling the love.
Residents who responded to the city's annual Customer Satisfaction Survey for the last five years have given the sanitation department the highest marks each year — ranking them above the fire and police departments. And they show their gratitude whenever the trucks pass by.
Elderly women hustle out to say hello, homemade pies and cookies in hand. Some customers leave coolers with drinks on ice on the curb next to their trash cans, others bring cold sodas or bottled water out themselves so they can chat for a bit. Passers-by always seem to wave.
Joy Morrison, a Silver Oaks Village resident for six years, makes iced tea for her trash men. Occasionally, there are baked goods, too.
"It's hot out there," Morrison said matter-of-factly. "I treat them like gentlemen because they are gentlemen. They help keep our homes and our community clean. If it weren't for them, we'd be smellin' all over the place."
Morrison, 63, said she once watched a neighbor haul trash to the curb after the garbage truck passed by. The truck driver noticed and backed the truck up so the men could collect the bags. She's also witnessed how sloppy some folks are with their trash, and how the men clean it up.
"People don't respect them enough," Morrison said. "They think that's their job, to clean up after them, but that goes beyond. I was brought up to believe everybody works together to make their community better."
Gail McDonald, 65, has similar thoughts. If he has a lot of trash, he'll come out and help the guys toss bags into the truck.
"They're always on time, always friendly," McDonald said. "In 20 years here, I've never had anything bad to say about them."
That kind of feedback is the best part of the job, the men say.
"It pushes us to do more, to do better," said Bobby Black, one of the 11 workers in the department. "Getting to know the people, that's the best thing about this job. They are really friendly. It makes your day."
All of the men start out on the back of the truck and work their way up. Even though Black, 46, is a foreman now, he still jumps on the back or drives trucks to help out when others are sick or on vacation. He's seen plenty in two decades. He was driving the truck early one morning, about 10 years ago, when he spotted a 2-year-old boy walking across U.S. 301. Turns out, the police had been searching for him for hours. Another time, he stopped the truck after spotting an elderly woman on the ground. One of the guys helped her up.
Public Works supervisor Shane LeBlanc isn't surprised the men are so beloved. He knows their friendliness and willingness to help play a part, but there's more to it than that.
"These guys work hard, in all kinds of weather conditions, and they treat their customers the way they want to be treated," LeBlanc said. "If someone calls and says we missed picking up their trash, we send someone out the same day to get it. When they empty a container, they set it back upright, with the lid on. It's the little things that people appreciate."
Andy Sumner, 25, has been on the back of a truck for five years. He often partners with Tieran Burns, 24, who has about 18 months on the job. Both say they want to make a career with the city, even though the job sometimes stinks — literally. One recent day, Sumner got drenched with a jug of sour milk.
When it comes to their job titles, the men all agree they don't care for politically correct terms. So don't bother calling them sanitation workers.
"We're garbage men," Black said proudly. "Right to our heart."