(Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a new series that chronicles the lives and employment of service workers in the Gunnison Valley.)
A few months after Tom Williams went to work for the City of Gunnison collecting refuse, he was tending his job on a typical day when a mother and daughter passed by. The young girl asked what Williams was doing, and her mother was quick to respond.
“He’s doing a demeaning job.”
The incident stuck with Williams because he sees his line of work as far from demeaning.
“I’m doing a service for the City of Gunnison,” Williams said. “It’s something that needs done, and it’s one of the few jobs at the city that needs done every day. I take pride in it.”
In today’s day in age, refuse collection for the city is a highly orchestrated task, as residents and business proprietors have come to know all too well by the protocol relayed via social media and “tags” — or sheets of paper placed on bins — reminding of rules for sorting recycling when they’ve been broken.
In addition to collecting and delivering recycling to the county, the city refuse crew picks up and hauls to the landfill about 15,000 pounds of trash daily. Today, the city system is completely automated — with a truck driven by a single employee who rarely needs to leave the cab.
In fact, for sake of safety and efficiency, the system is designed so that the refuse workers don’t leave the driver’s seat.
“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” said Streets and Refuse Superintendent Jason Kibler, noting that while automation has cut the size of the refuse crew in half, it comes with a need for greater training — of both employees and the public in how and where to place their trash. “People get upset with us for their mistakes.”
Williams — or his co-worker, Mike Cribari — simply pull up next to a trash can and use a joystick to control arms that extend from the side of the vehicle, grab the can and dump its contents into the back of the truck.
On the busiest of days each week, Williams or Cribari will pick up 500 trash cans. And that’s in addition to entire days devoted to also emptying dumpsters.
From week to week, Williams and Cribari swap roles. When one is collecting trash, the other is picking up recycling.
And when a day’s trash and recycling collection is done, they return to the Public Works shop to weld broken dumpsters, perform maintenance on the trucks and make sure all is well for a system and its equipment which the public expects to operate without fail.
Williams graduated from Gunnison High School in 2006 before being recruited to attend welding school in Cortez. Upon returning home, he went to work for the family business — Williams Drilling — where he remained for the next decade.
But he felt like he needed a change, and with drilling business not nearly as strong then as it is today, he thought he would be helping his family by seeking other employment.
“I had never really had an eight-to-five job,” Williams said, noting the long hours that typically came with the family business.
So he applied for an opening with the city and was hired in early 2018.
While driving a truck up and down alleys all day may seem dull, Williams can attest that it takes a high level of concentration. Parked cars, pedestrians, gas meters and powerlines have to be avoided, while snaking the multi-ton vehicle as close to receptacles as possible.
“Mentally, it’s a challenging job,” Williams said. “It can get stressful at times.”
There’s another challenging element to the job — dealing with residents who ignore refuse-collection protocol or take their angst about newly enacted procedures out on the crew.
“I’ve been yelled out. I’ve had bins thrown at me. I’ve had bins kicked at me,” Williams admitted.
In fact, Williams cites “habitual offenders” who fail to properly sort recycling, place bins and cans too close together or overfill containers as the hardest part of the job. Still, he admits that with consistent reminers, many eventually catch the drift.
And he enjoys the service he’s providing.
“It’s not a glamorous job by any means, but somebody’s gotta do it,” he said.
The father of a 4-year-old boy and 8-month-old girl even believes the job has helped him become a better person. Instead of working 12-13-hour days, he’s now home shortly after 5 and can spend time with the kids.
While Williams Drilling certainly misses having Tom around — especially amid a recent spike in business — his mother Dottie agrees that the change has been good for her son.
“I think it has taught him a different kind of responsibility, not only for himself but to the community,” she said.
There’s another perk from the job as well. Last summer, Williams took a kid and his dad for a ride around the block after learning just how enthralled with the rig the youngster was. It made more than just the kid’s day.
“I don’t know what it is, but kids love trash trucks,” Williams smiled.
(Will Shoemaker can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)