When some Philadelphians noticed that their trash hadn’t been collected on its scheduled date, they took to Twitter, asking the city what was going on.

“Hope your employees are safe! 900 Clinton block hasn’t had trash pick up for the second week in a row. Truck came, but didn’t load up. Can we get some help?”

“Come get my trash ... Trash day was yesterday for my block and this block look dirty ..."

“Of course, the trash hasn’t been picked up.”

On Thursday, city officials said not to worry: Trash pickup was still continuing as an essential service during the coronavirus outbreak.

But there may be some delays, city officials said, because employees are calling out from work. The president of the union that represents those workers, however, says that’s “100% false.”

Across the country, garbage collectors are among the less heralded essential workers of the coronavirus shutdown. During the 1918 Spanish flu, trash piled up in the streets when these workers fell ill.

Today, as this pandemic worsens, many trash collectors say they show up every day scared, unsure whether they’re being exposed to medical waste or other materials that have been touched by people with the coronavirus.

Bags of garbage lay strewn across the sidewalk on North 9th Street in the Chinatown area of Philadelphia on April 2, 2020.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer
Bags of garbage lay strewn across the sidewalk on North 9th Street in the Chinatown area of Philadelphia on April 2, 2020.

In New York, now considered the epicenter of the American outbreak, more than 100 sanitation workers have tested positive for the virus. The department has adjusted schedules and suspended some waste collection services. Last week in Pittsburgh, sanitation workers protested, not picking up trash for a day as they demanded better protective gear and hazard pay.

In Philadelphia, a Streets Department spokesperson said Thursday that "residents should expect some collection delays as the health crisis is beginning to have an impact on employees’ attendance. Streets employees are trying to balance their personal and professional lives in the midst of COVID-19.”

City Managing Director Brian Abernathy later reiterated that there were staffing shortages in the sanitation department.

“You’d have to ask them why they’re calling out,” he said. “We’re running a little bit behind on trash pickup. I’m confident that we’re going to catch up.”

Charles Carrington, president of Local 427, the union that represents 1,100 city sanitation workers, said he received no notification about a high volume of call-outs. “I’ll debate anybody on that,” he said.

In fact, employees are continuing to work despite being terrified of exposure to the virus, he said.

A garbage truck travels near the 2400 block of Moore Street in Philadelphia on Thursday.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
A garbage truck travels near the 2400 block of Moore Street in Philadelphia on Thursday.

“We are the only department that on a daily basis touches every household,” he said. “We don’t know where these cases are. We just know they’re quarantining and still putting their trash and recycling out.”

Carrington said he didn’t know why trash pickup had been delayed.

He said sanitation workers want greater recognition from the city and hazard pay, something they’ve been asking for even before the pandemic. Last month, the city instituted a time-and-a-half policy for essential city employees who are working during the outbreak, but that policy expired last week.

“By the grace of God, right now we don’t know have any positive cases in our department,” Carrington said. “But I expect that to change.”

Mayor Jim Kenney encouraged residents to continue putting out trash and recycling, and said the city is running about a day behind on pickup but will continue into the weekend to catch up.

“We thank everyone for their patience and cooperation while we work through this," he said

Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.