NEW YORK — Noel Molina smells like a lot of the time, but he also smells like money — and lots of it.
Molina and his co-worker, Tony Sankar, have been picking up trash together in New York City for the past 10 years.
They’ve seen ,and smelled it all. Stale fish, footlong rats, dead pigs and cows. Countless drunks have heckled them.
One time, Sankar saw a human leg in a dumpster.
They work the graveyard shift — 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. — rain or shine, ice cold or burning hot.
And yet, they love their job. Part of the reason is they get paid well for their hard work.
“Your trash is my money,” Molina, 32, says with a baby-faced grin.
Molina made $112,000 last year as a garbage truck driver and Sankar made $100,000 as a helper, riding on the back of the truck. Their wages have grown in eight of the last nine years, according to their bosses, brothers David and Jerry Antonacci, owners of Crown Container, a waste management company.
Molina dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and he’s worked at Crown for 10 years. He says his starting salary was about $80,000. Sankar too dropped out of school before migrating to the U.S. from Guyana 20 years ago.
Not everyone makes six figures, but most trash workers are doing better than high school dropouts and even graduates.
Molina and Sankar are aware that they outearn many people with a college degree.
Guys who go to college might not make the kind of money “(I make) on the back of a garbage truck, picking up trash,” says Sankar.
It’s far from an easy job. Beyond the stench, Molina and Sankar lift heavy trash bags every night, weave through traffic, and talk to each other constantly for safety. They work a lot too — 55 to 60 hours a week.
But there’s job security, says David Biderman, executive director of Solid Waste Association of North America, the association that represents thousands of waste management workers.
Biderman argues the waste industry offers long-term job security for working class folks. Both Molina and Sankar have full health care coverage and a 401(k) retirement account. If they leave the job, they are entitled to severance pay too.
“We’re one of the very few blue collar jobs that can’t be outsourced to China,” he says.
Molina is buying his first house, a 4-bedroom in Freeport, New York. Divorced with three kids, Molina wants them to have a place outside the city.
Sankar, 48, supports eight of his nine kids — the oldest is an adult.
On a cold February night, Sankar and Molina were on their route when a young man asked Sankar if Crown was hiring. Sankar gave the young man the company’s address and said to call. When told how much Sankar makes, the young man was in disbelief:
“No, I wouldn’t believe that.”
Sankar picked up the last bag at the site, chucked it into the back, jumped onto the truck and smiled.
“It’s a good paying job,” said Sankar, laughing into the winter night.